By David Dodge and Duncan Kinney
Kent Rathwell pulls up to Peavey Mart in Red Deer, Alberta in his Tesla Model S performance car, parks in the big green parking spot at the front doors and plugs his car in to charge for free.
Rathwell is a serial entrepreneur from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan who started Sun Country Highway in order to create the “world’s longest green highway” a network of electric vehicle charging stations across Canada.
With only 3,300 electric vehicles (June figures) in Canada this might seem like an idea ahead of its time. So why do it? “Well ultimately because it needs to be done,” says Rathwell.
The electric car industry has experienced fits and starts for years and “The common denominator in that was that the infrastructure wasn’t in,” says Rathwell.
“Within eight months we actually did complete our one year goal of connecting coast to coast across the country. Creating the world’s longest green highway which you can travel in a 100 per cent electric car, 100 per cent emission free and at zero cost.”
With no public money Sun Country Highway has installed around 700 chargers to prove EVs can be viable in one of the world’s largest countries with one of the world’s harshest climates. By the end of their second year Sun Country is projected to have installed more than 1,000 chargers in Canada and they are already moving into the U.S.
Rathwell is a man of contrasts – he’s an audaciously ambitious entrepreneur and yet he’s also out to make the world a more sustainable place. He invested millions of dollars of his own money in the project. Had he left his money in Tesla stock his cash would have been worth $20 million today.
“Well I went to Saskatchewan to find the industry that I could really stimulate quickly to prove that there was great opportunity in Saskatchewan.” With that goal Rathwell helped grow the broiler chicken business in the province before buying Sun Country Farms.
“We bought a birdseed company, my wife and I, and we decided to turn it into a zero-emission company to prove that you could have a zero-emission company and be sustainable. And that took a year because we had to convince and work with the provincial utility there to secure a block of green power that they were producing,” says Rathwell.
While it took some time to convince SaskPower that their wind power was worth more than regular coal-fired electricity, his persistence paid off. Today Saskatchewan has a green power program thanks to Rathwell and it has doubled in size and is sold out.
The birdseed/electric vehicle connection
Sun Country Farms birdseed and bird feeders occupy an entire aisle in the flagship Red Deer Peavey Mart location. Based in western Canada, there are 29 Peavey Mart locations spread across B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
It’s Rathwell’s business acumen that convinced Peavey Mart’s Doug Anderson to try something really different and install electric car chargers. They have already installed 13 electric vehicle chargers at their stores and will have all 29 outfitted by the end of the year.
You wouldn’t think to find an electric vehicle charging station at a place that does a brisk trade in horse feed, tool boxes and toy tractors, but we went down to Red Deer, Alberta to check it out. Right at the front of the store, in the most rock star parking spot you can think of was Rathwell’s Tesla Model S charging up.
“It makes me feel great. It feels progressive and it enables us to show what we’re all about, says Doug Anderson, CEO of Peavey Industries. “We’re able to attract new customers as people drive between Calgary and Edmonton for example but not just that. In our Camrose store we see people charging all the time. In fact in Vegreville yesterday we had three vehicles charging there. It’s surprising but exciting at the same time,” says Anderson.
Customers have responded with “A lot of intrigue, a lot of interest. Every time we plug in a vehicle there customers are coming out and asking questions about the charger and about electric vehicles. It’s been positive,” says Anderson.
Being halfway between Calgary and Edmonton this particular charging station has even been used by people we’ve featured on Green Energy Futures before.
Oh yeah, there’s one more thing, go to any Sun Country charging station with your electric vehicle and you get to charge your battery for free. By installing chargers across Canada, Sun Country Highway is reducing one of the fundamental worries people have about electric vehicles, range anxiety.
Coast to Coast Electric Vehicle Charging
You can find these electric vehicle chargers across the country just head to the EV trip planner and check it out. Not only do they have their deal with Peavey Mart but they’re also set up with Best Western hotels and numerous other partners.
What’s the plan for Sun Country Highway?
“The business model is to really empower a nation and see where that goes. We’re putting in charging stations at smaller communities and businesses to allow people who want to look at another alternative whether it’s fully electric or electric extended range to be able to drive and to be able to go places and become more economically, socially and environmentally sustainable,” says Rathwell.
While the business case might be a little fuzzy it’s that kind of willingness to buck the common wisdom of the day that has me encouraged about the future of Sun Country Highway. While electric cars only make up 0.1 per cent of new cars sold in Canada if Rathwell sees an opportunity in electric vehicle charging stations, I’m inclined to believe he can get it done.
He has sunk a lot of money into this enterprise and it is not without risk, but that is the entrepreneur’s life.
“I had to sell of some of my biggest things and borrow from my companies because you’re not going to get this kind of money from a bank on a venture to set up charging stations across the country to give away power just to prove that you can do it.”