B.C. cleantech company hits the road to keep electric vehicles running

For Earth Day, we check in with the founder and CEO of Portable Electric, which will soon roll out Canada's biggest clean-energy mobile EV charger.

Credit: Courtesy of Portable Electric

Mark Rabin founded Portable Electric in 2015

For Earth Day, we check in with the founder and CEO of Portable Electric, which will soon roll out Canada’s biggest clean-energy mobile EV charger

Mark Rabin took an unlikely route to the renewable power business.

After earning a geology degree from Dalhousie University in Halifax, the New Brunswick native moved to Alberta with just a backpack and a pair of skis, he says. Rabin joined the oil industry as a petroleum geologist, working everywhere from northeast B.C. and central Alberta to the East Kootenays.

“The oil business really opened my eyes to how humans were using energy and oil,” he recalls. “That sent me down the path of energy economics.”

So Rabin did an MSc in that field at the French Institute of Petroleum, along with a master’s in energy studies at the University of Dundee. Getting out of oil in 2013, he switched to renewable energy projects. Two years later, Rabin founded Vancouver-based Portable Electric, which specializes in high-performance mobile electric generators.

When Portable Electric’s first units hit the market in 2016, the company used film and entertainment as a beachhead, CEO Rabin explains. Today, it sells its Voltstack power stations in almost 10 countries, for applications ranging from field hospitals to Hollywood movies. “I would say we’re the global leader in e-generators right now,” Rabin says of the 30-employee cleantech business, which does all of its design and manufacturing in Vancouver.

At first, he faced plenty of skepticism. “People were like, I don’t know about this electric battery, electric vehicle stuff. And then a few years ago, people were like, Well, is this really going to be a thing? Maybe, maybe not. And now it’s not even questioned anymore. It’s how fast, how big? Who’s going to win? Who’s going to dominate this field?”

Credit: Courtesy of Portable Electric

A Portable Electric mobile charger

A top-up for your EV

Portable Electric’s latest venture involves its large trailer-based units, which it’s been making since the early days. In 2019, the company was invited to present at a forum about electrification and sustainability in the East Kootenays. “There’s definitely been a very progressive movement going on for quite some time,” Rabin says of the region. “I presented this vision for these EV charging nodes and also mobile EV charging.”

That event led to a partnership with Vancouver-headquartered mining giant Teck Resources and the Community Energy Association, a B.C. nonprofit. With $232,000 in funding from Teck, Portable Electric has developed the country’s biggest clean-energy mobile electric vehicle (EV) charger. The partners plan to roll out the first battery electric unit, starting in the East Kootenay communities of Fernie, Elkford and Sparwood, in the third quarter of this year.

Teck is switching to EVs at its mine sites, observes Rabin, who also has an MBA from Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. “We’ve been very fortunate to work with them and to come up with a pioneering system that’s going to be a leader not only in the Kootenays but in Canada and North America and globally.”

The Portable Electric unit, which can charge two EVs, is mostly for top-ups, Rabin notes. “Think about it like you just drove from Calgary in your electric vehicle to the ski hill in Fernie, and you needed enough to get to the next charger,” he says. “We can add 25 kilometres or 50 kilometres to the car so it can get to a proper fast charger.”

Rabin is also watching the movement toward electrified sports vehicles such as motorcycles, ATVs and snowmobiles. “Our equipment is ideal for fast-charging those types of equipment,” he says of Portable Electric, which just did a demo with Quebec snowmobile maker Taiga Motors.

Users can replenish the device via an EV charging station or a standard wall outlet, but Rabin says it’s designed to work with a variety of energy sources. “We could also charge it from a hydrogen fuel cell or another type of generator, and we can also pair it with a mobile solar array.”

There’s no holding back

Rabin, whose next car will be all-electric, sees plenty more upside. “I’m sure most people are saying right now that their next vehicle’s going to be all-electric or hybrid.”

At the same time, U.S. President Joe Biden plans to build a national EV charging network. “There’s no holding back,” Rabin says. “So now the biggest next question is going to be, what about charging? What about range anxiety? And as we start to roll out the EV charging infrastructure, we believe that 15 percent of all charging infrastructure will need to be mobile and resilient in some fashion.”

Let’s say there’s a major power outage, a wildfire or an event with 20,000 people, Rabin says. “There will start to be stranded or distressed EVs that require top-up charging enough to get back to grid charging infrastructure,” he reckons. “We’re definitely bullish on the EV charging market. We’re seeing a lot of momentum in California as well for our business.”

At ski resorts, Rabin thinks there’s an opportunity to offer white-glove top-up service—and a chance to educate people about electrification. Portable Electric’s mobile chargers could also power emergency shelters, food banks or a stage at the Kaslo Jazz Etc Festival, he says. “That can create, again, these opportunities to educate the public and also showcase the Kootenays as a global leader for electrification.”

Rabin doesn’t mince words about the environmental challenges we face. “Any civilization intent on surviving would not be doing what we’re doing today on this planet,” he says. “If you look at the ecological checks and balances, the math doesn’t work out right now.”

As part of the solution, electrification and renewable energy are in their infancy, Rabin stresses, noting that it took a century to build out the global oil and gas infrastructure. “We’re going to start to see the same thing with electric vehicles and hydrogen as well.”