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North Carolina Zoo Plows New Ground With All-Electric Tractor

Photo Courtesy Randolph Electric Membership Cooperative

The North Carolina Zoo (NC Zoo) is a big place, spanning 2,600 acres and ranking as the world’s biggest natural habitat zoo. Maintaining that kind of acreage requires heavy equipment, mostly in the form of tractors. 

Because tractors require so much energy to operate, they aren’t always great candidates for battery power. However, the NC Zoo aims to change that by adding an all-electric model to its fleet as a way of lowering carbon emissions.

According to the North Carolina Electric Cooperative (NCEC), the new tractor is expected to be put into action this fall, moving dirt, picking up mulch, and handling light landscaping work. It is part of a pilot program between the NC Zoo and Randolph Electric Membership Cooperative (Randolph EMC) and is supported by the North Carolina Electric Membership Corporation (NCEMC).

Photo Courtesy NC Electric Cooperatives

By using an electric tractor, the Asheboro-based zoo will be able to forego time-consuming oil changes and engine tune-ups while also avoiding the need to buy diesel fuel.

The machine is expected to have the same capabilities as its diesel-powered predecessor. This feature is an important consideration given that most electric tractors don’t have nearly enough power to handle large-scale agricultural and construction projects efficiently.

“The biggest challenge for battery electric tractors is available energy capacity in batteries today compared with the energy required for typical farming operations,” Dennis Muszalski, director of module and electrification system engineering at John Deere, told Successful Farming in a 2021 interview. “Our customers can’t afford any delays due to limitations of battery capacity resulting in frequent and lengthy recharging.”

Photo Courtesy NC Electric Cooperatives

According to Jim Musilek, vice president of innovation and business development and strategic management for NCEC, one goal of the NC Zoo pilot program is to “shed light” on the possibilities electric tractors hold for businesses and consumers state-wide.

“The intention from day one was for this tractor to operate no differently than a conventional one,” Musilek said in a press release. “These types of tractors have been used in greenhouses, municipal applications, and livestock with great success. Once we get our hands on the pilot results, we will better understand how they function and where else we can implement technology like this.”

Photo Courtesy NC Electric Cooperatives  

C The zoo already has several EVs in its fleet.

“We are thinking outside the box with many of the projects we are working on these days,” Musilek said. “Bringing new solutions like this to the communities we serve is all part of the cooperative difference we strive to make.”

As Business North Carolina magazine reported in January, Randolph EMC will use the NC Zoo project to examine various usage data. Among other things, it will track how much energy the tractor uses, how often its battery needs to be charged, its overall performance, and the amount of money it saves on fuel and maintenance costs.

Photo Courtesy North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives

The idea for collaborating with the zoo was hatched during the zoo’s annual National Drive Electric Week.

“The North Carolina Electric Cooperatives was searching for a place to experiment with an electric tractor in a real-world environment and measure both the environmental benefits and costs of operating it, and we thought the zoo would be a good fit,” Michael Trent, vice president of member services and public relations at Randolph EMC, told Business North Carolina.The new tractor will be a Solectrac model manufactured in California and distributed through a partnership with Denton, North Carolina-based Nolan Manufacturing. The cost is $39,000, which will be split between the zoo and the NCEMC.

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