Kent Rathwell is changing, and charging, the world

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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

An e-mazing experience

James Jackson, Dec 5, 2014 – Waterloo Chronicle

Imagine driving nearly 1,500 kilometres, visiting 37 different cities and towns and spending more than 35 hours in your car — all while spending less than $100 on gas.

It’s reality for a Waterloo couple, who recently finished fourth in a national electric car race dubbed The E-Mazing Race and organized by Sun Country Highway, a Canadian-owned company looking to raise awareness and promote the adoption of zero emission transportation.

Waterloo’s Currie Russell and his wife, Becky, finished fourth while behind the wheel of their Chevy Volt, driving 1,497 kms and only spending about $75 on gas.

Racers had from Sept. 29 to Nov. 1 to drive their electric or electric/gas hybrid vehicle to Sun Country Highway charging stations across the country to take a photo beside the station and mark their progress using a mobile application.

The racers also gained bonus points for visiting Petro-Canada gas stations, one of the race sponsors.

“It really felt like the Amazing Race,” said Currie, comparing it to the popular television show where contestants race around the world. He can recall rushing into a public library in King City with just minutes to spare before the 4 p.m. deadline on Nov. 1 and using the wireless connection to log into the competition website and download their photos for the day.

The couple’s last-minute efforts garnered enough points to move them from sixth to fourth in the competition with 1,140 points — but well behind the winners, who drove from Prince Edward Island to British Columbia and had 4,710 points. About 350 racers took part.

Currie and his wife stayed mostly within Southern Ontario for the race and visited a range of communities that included Goderich, Woodstock, Niagara Falls, Guelph, Toronto and Aurora, among others.

“It was quite fun,” said Becky. “We got to visit a lot of towns we probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise.”

For their efforts, the couple won a charging station from Sun Country Highway valued at almost $1,800 and won an identical charging station for their electric vehicle group, the Golden Horseshoe Electric Vehicle Association. Since they already have a charger at home for their Volt, Currie said they might look to donate it locally.

Founded by Kent Rathwell, Sun Country Highway has more than 80 free public access charging stations located at restaurants, hotels, tourist destinations, municipalities and other businesses along the Trans-Canada Highway, making it the longest EV-ready highway in the world.

“The E-mazing Race has a positive message, showing how we can make sustainable choices and encourage people to join the EV movement,” said Rathwell in a release.

The goal of the race, which garnered media attention across the country, was to build “critical mass” for electric vehicles in Canada, said Currie. He said when it comes to electric cars, also known as EVs, it usually boils down to the chicken or the egg scenario.

Businesses and municipalities are reluctant to spend money on electric charging stations or other infrastructure until more people are willing to drive EVs, but people are wary of buying EVs until there are more charging stations and other infrastructure in place in their community.

The couple have owned their Volt, which is a full electric vehicle with a gasoline backup, for about two years. The vehicle is capable of driving about 75 kms on a full charge in the summer, but that drops to about 50 km in the winter.

The struggle is getting consumers to ditch their fossil-fuel burning vehicle and make the switch to EV technology, and statistics show Waterloo Region is slowly making that switch.

Information from the Ministry of Transportation suggests there are about 110 electric vehicle or hybrid plug-in vehicles, like the Chevy Volt, in the region. There are also 15 charging stations — four in Kitchener, six in Waterloo, four in Cambridge and one in Woolwich Township (including private dealerships).

Those numbers are up from about 70 vehicles and 10 charging stations in 2013, which suggests Waterloo Region could be a natural fit for EV adoption.

“In Waterloo Region our demographics align closely with those of typical EV early adopters and geographically, much of our local commuting is within a typical EV’s range,” said Allan Taylor, program development manager with Sustainable Waterloo Region.

In 2013, the non-profit group Pollution Probe released its Electric Mobility Adaptation and Prediction study and found that early adopters are, among other things, enthusiastic about technology.

“Waterloo Region’s heavy tech focus is one reason that we can hope for high EV adoption rates,” said Taylor.
With their Volt, Becky estimates they save about $300 per month on gas compared to their old gas-powered vehicle.
They only spend about $25 every month on gas, and their hydro bill has increased by about a dollar per day to charge their vehicle.

E-Mazing Race Results:
Kilometres travelled: 1,497
Charging stations visited: 46
Towns/ cities visited: 37
Total hours spent driving: 35.5
Total spent on fuel: $75

Electric Vehicles in Waterloo Region:
Electric vehicles (approximately): 110
Charging stations: 15
Waterloo: 6 chargers
Kitchener: 4 chargers
Cambridge: 4 chargers
Woolwich Township: 1 charger

Source: Sustainable Waterloo Region

Read more at the Waterloo Chronicle