Trenance Farm is situated on the extreme South West tip of England, six hours from London and just a stone’s throw from the Celtic Sea. It’s a dairy farm whose owners, Kevin and Kate Hoare, still hand-milk their cows – 120 heads, twice a day. But the Hoares also work with some of the most advanced climate technologies in the world.
Remember that scene in Back to the Future where Doc Brown pulls up in a flying DeLorean sports car, stuffs in a bunch of junk for fuel, and drives off? This essentially happens at Trenance Farm. It’s one of the first places on earth to find a tractor that runs solely on methane, the all-natural and highly polluting by-product of pretty much any organic decomposition.
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The machine – dubbed the New Holland T6 – weighs 21,000 pounds, has 180 horsepower and has as much oomph as a diesel tractor. But its 49-gallon tank emits 62% less nitrous oxide and up to 15% less carbon dioxide while running indefinitely on the manure of about 75 cows.
“It takes 10 minutes to fill up and we never run out of gas,” says Kevin Hoare. “We may be just a small fish, but at least we’re doing our part.”
For all its greenery, farming is an insidious gust of greenhouse gases: high-powered equipment emits nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide, while pretty much everything else on a farm — the flora and fauna raised — emits a continuous cloud of methane, a gas that emits for over a decade naturally degrades, but meanwhile contributes to global warming at a rate 80 times higher than carbon. While electrification is increasingly addressing emissions from cars and trucks, it is less suited to farm machinery because the long hours and intense work required quickly drain batteries.
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This mismatch prompted CNH Industrial, an Italy-based competitor of John Deere, to begin research into alternative fuels almost 20 years ago. The company chose methane because not only is the gas causing climate chaos, but it’s everywhere on a farm. As carbon swooned during the Covid-19 lockdown, methane emissions, which account for about 20% of greenhouse gas emissions, continued to rise.
“Electrification plays a role … but it probably won’t replace diesel,” says Scott Wine, CNH’s chief executive officer. “But a medium-sized farm will produce more methane than it can use.”
Ironically, the most critical part of the T6 development process had little to do with the tractor itself. CNH needed a means of capturing and processing this methane, which it found in a startup called Bennamann Ltd. found. Since 2011, Bennamann has been making synthetic fabric domes, or membranes, that span manure lagoons and capture suspended gas like a tent parachute in a gym class. CNH acquired a majority stake in the company earlier this year.
“I think that’s the quickest route to a $1 billion deal I’ve ever seen,” Wine said of Bennamann.
The next aha moment came when CNH co-founder Chris Mann realized he could use some of the captured gas to cool the rest, in a process not dissimilar to that of a propane-powered refrigerator. When methane is cold enough, it becomes a liquid that is much easier to transport and work for an engine. The company equipped its T6 engine with a turbo system and tuned the tractor’s combustion to methane. Every farmer with a Bennamann dome can pull his T6 in front of the Bennamann fermenter and fill it up like a car at a gas station. A dome can store gas for a month, which can be turned into fuel in about four days.
“We call it the magic factory,” says Mann. “Organic waste goes in and the gas comes out. There is no heat; it’s just nature doing its thing.”
The T6 has its downsides: It costs $203,000, about 30% more than an equivalent diesel tractor, though CNH says the bounty is covered in less than a year by a cow-to-fill. Customers with excess methane can also sell the gas, burn it in a generator, or even send juice back to the grid. On some Bennamann farms, manure brings in more money than milk and meat.
For now, CNH is pushing its tractor and manure tent as a package, primarily focusing on dairy farms in Europe. (There are about 12,000 farms with at least 75 cows in the UK alone.) But a similar system would work just about anywhere there was a source of methane, from landfills to fish markets. Rice pies, for example, are a huge source of methane.
At Trenance Farm, the T6 runs up to 10 hours a day – rolling, ploughing, harrowing, hauling, mowing, feeding and of course scraping cow turds into a pit. It’s already having a significant impact: the facility burns about 100 gallons less diesel each month, the equivalent of 2,700 pounds of CO2 emissions (equivalent to what a passenger car emits every three months). It also camps out so much methane that the Hoares began using the excess gas to power a generator, which in turn produces enough electricity to juice the entire farm.
For years, Hoare has been bugging the local utility to get enough power to install an automated milking system; now he doesn’t have to. In a way, the cows will milk themselves.
“It’s a closed loop,” he says. “We’re completely off the grid, we have our own water supply and honestly the whole place smells better.”
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