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Kent Rathwell is changing, and charging, the world
2014-12-17
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Canada’s EV pioneer led drive to ‘electrify’ the Trans-Canada Highway


Sun Country Highway president Kent Rathwell with wife Joni, daughter Kaidin and son Xander at the end of the E-mazing Race, a cross-Canada event that began on Sept. 29 in Toronto and involveds participants trying to visit the most Sun Country electric vehicle charging stations in a one-month period. Photograph by: Nick Procaylo

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Andrew McCredie, December 16, 2014 - The Vancouver Sun

The world might have Elon Musk as its electric vehicle messiah, but Canada has a sustainability superhero all its own.

Saskatoon’s Kent Rathwell doesn’t have the rock star recognition of the founder of Tesla Motors, but a compelling argument can be made that Rathwell’s company, Sun Country Highway, is more integral to the establishment of electric vehicle, or EVs, than Musk’s giga-empire ever will be.

Less than three years ago, Rathwell and his small band of eco-warriors announced a bold, most said foolhardy, goal to make it possible to drive from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean in an electric vehicle. For free.

They’d accomplish this by setting up Sun Country Highway charging stations along the length and breadth of the Trans-Canada Highway. And they’d do it without one penny of government money.

“We set out to eliminate the excuses of people from blaming government, oil companies, automakers and, ultimately, their ancestors for the lack of sustainable transportation,” Rathwell says of the cross-country charging network, adding that if our ancestors had put charging stations into their houses and businesses 100 years ago, “we would have had sustainable transportation for a century now.”

Hard to argue with that notion as, in the early 1900s, electric vehicles were zipping around North American streets. In fact, mini-EV revolutions of sorts have come around every couple of decades for the past 100 years, only to go the way of the horse and carriage. Why? A lack of charging station infrastructure.

Rathwell, an engineer, feared the current EV wave that is crackling around the globe might do the same, so he set out to ensure, at least in Canada, that if the wave crashed, it would not be due to a lack of charging stations.

“The original concept was to finally create sustainable transportation,” Rathwell says of the creation of Sun Country Highway. “Up until a couple of years ago, that’s never been able to take root.”
Judging by the numbers, he’s succeeded. There are now thousands of Sun Country Highway chargers installed across Canada, including along the entire length of the Trans-Canada Highway.

(Planning a cross-country trip? Go to www.suncountryhighway.ca to find a list of charger locations.)

A funny thing happened on the way to achieving the charger goal. Rathwell and his ragtag band of charged-up supporters proved that something big can be done without dealing with large cities, large corporations and large governments. Instead, it was small business owners from coast to coast who made it happen. The vast majority of the public charging stations are in the parking lots of mom and pop stores and restaurants.

“They can make decisions like this,” Rathwell says with a snap of his fingers. “And that’s the strength of the model. Average people who feel they are not big enough to make a difference, if you unite them, they can change the world.”

‘Changing the world’ is so clichéd today that it is most often met with a roll of the eyes and knowing winks when uttered, but Rathwell shamelessly embraces it as his reason for being.

Case in point: Sun Country Highway is just one of the ways he’s changing the world.

The bird seed manufacturing company he owns and operates with his wife Joni, Sun Country Farms, recently became Saskatchewan’s first zero-emission company. And it took them just a year to do it.

“A lot of people said you can’t have a zero-emission company that is sustainable,” he says, prompting him to set up an entire value chain to figure it out. “We set up a crushing plant to take off-grade oilseeds and some of our waste products and turn that into 10,000 to 15,000 litres of bio-oil a day, which now powers all of our farmers’ equipment and all of our tractor trailers in our highway fleet.”

All the more impressive when you consider Sun Country Farms manufactures millions of bags of bird seed a year.

“We’ve proven you can grow it, you can process it, manufacture it, warehouse it and distribute it to retailers with no emissions.”

Throw in the fact that one of those retailers, Peavey Mart, with 32 stores across Western Canada, installed Sun Country charging stations at its outlets so that EV-owning consumers can buy the bird feed and take it home with no emissions.

“(Peavey) bought into the concept, and in addition they have made their charging stations available 24/7 to anyone travelling by. So they’re not only empowering their customers, they’re empowering strangers.

“And that is really what this is about. Empowering people to focus their energy on the positive instead of buying into why we can’t do things. That’s why we electrified the entire Trans-Canada Highway. If the longest highway in the world can be electrified, what can’t be?”

For electric vehicle owners, Rathwell is a true hero.

“Many people talk about doing something to improve the world. Kent Rathwell is actually doing something concrete at great personal expense to change the world,” says Bruce Stout, president of the Vancouver Electric Vehicle Association. “Our lives will only be improved by people like Kent Rathwell, who make sacrifices to benefit society.”

Rathwell is keenly aware of the sacrifices he’s made.

“I’ve had zero fear of this succeeding,” he admits of his Sun Country Highway endeavour. “My biggest fear I’ve been dealing with internally is losing my relationships with my kids and my wife in the process of trying to help others.

“I’m never home but I have a wife and family that supports me and says ‘get it done’.”

He tells a story about how every time he leaves home on another trip to preach the EV gospel, his young daughter doesn’t want him to leave but knows ‘that I’m going to help people.’

“It’s tough but that inspires me to keep going.”

Spoken like a true super hero.

Read the article at The Vancouver Sun