David Deak
Transformative innovation expert David Deak speaks at the Almond Conference Dec. 5 in Sacramento, Calif.

Expert: Energy revolution coming in next decade

Ex-Tesla Motors official believes electric tractors, other innovations will virtually eliminate growers’ fuel costs.

Disruptive change is likely coming to California agriculture in the next decade, as technological improvements will lead to electric tractors and alternative-energy storage that will virtually eliminate farms’ energy costs.

So suggests David Deak, an expert in “disruptive innovation” who has served as senior development engineer at Tesla Motors, Inc., and chief technology officer at Lithium Americas Corp.

“I imagine running an almond orchard with zero cost of energy,” Deak told a luncheon audience Dec. 5 at the Almond Conference in Sacramento, Calif. “What’s really limiting us? Not time, because we have plenty of that. And it’s not money, because there’s some of that, too. It’s actually knowledge. We need new ideas, or taking some old ideas and putting a new perspective on it.”

Deak envisions a world about a decade from now when driverless, electric vehicles shuttle urban residents to work as farmers rely on battery-operated, self-propelled tractors and other equipment – a concept that’s ready to take off, he says.

He asserts the world is on the verge of a transformational achievement he compares to the invention of the telephone and the internal combustion engine.

“What are the key ingredients of transformational technology? One is the new technology must achieve cost parity with the existing technology. And it has to provide an enhanced user experience and make life a lot simpler,” he says.

Growers, processors and others listening to Deak’s presentation could be excused for being a little skeptical, considering that General Motors recently announced it may discontinue production of the Chevrolet Volt because of market factors, according to the Reuters news service.

Technology improving

But while common consumer complaints about electric cars include their high cost and relative inability to travel long distances before recharging, Deak contends the battery technology will improve to the point that the cost of batteries and electricity will be comparable to the cost of gasoline. For instance, Tesla is already rolling out more affordable models, he says.

Moreover, while the current drawback to wind and solar energy is that they're dependent on weather, there's a push to improve energy storage from the alternative methods for use on rainy or calm days, he says.

His talk comes as the Almond Board of California has placed a large emphasis in recent years on innovation, pledging this year to help growers further cut their water use and adopt more environmentally friendly practices by 2025.

The board is devoting $6.8 million for 75 independent research projects exploring next-generation farming practices, including optimal use of everything almond orchards produce. The board approved $4.8 million for similar research last year.

Innovation has been a favorite topic among luncheon speakers at the almond industry’s annual conference. Last year, media magnate and former presidential candidate Steve Forbes talked about his work in recent years to match innovators from the Silicon Valley with those in the Salinas and Central valleys.

Conference organizers say California agriculture has often been lauded for its ability to constantly evolve, but it hasn’t undergone the type of disruptive change that is affecting the automotive, communications and pharmaceutical industries. At least yet.

“We talk about innovation all the time, but transformative innovation has a different aspect to it,” Almond Board president and chief executive officer Richard Waycott says.

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