Speculative non-fiction by Chris Turner with illustrations by Andrew B. Myers.
Adapted from a speech by Harinder (“Harry”) Singh Jr., CEO of Clean Prairie Energy LLC, delivered to the Canadian Club of Toronto on April 22, 2050.
When I am asked about “the secret of my success,” I am always hesitant to respond. I know what’s expected. What is the key, the trick? What are the seven basic principles or the five easy steps? What do you do if you’re running a business today to make it work as well as my business works? I am hesitant because I can answer that question truthfully only if I say that the key is to be at the right place at the right time, and the only trick is to see that moment clearly and make the right choice, even if it is the hardest choice. Scratch that. Especially if it is the hardest choice.
I was at the right place at the right time only because my father made that hardest choice nearly 40 years ago. The secret of my success is that I grew up in drought and came of age as a refugee. The secret of my success is that my father chose to flee the first secure place he found in this country, because he knew what a place looked like just before a big fall and he had seen how quickly things can change. But how do you say that in a catchphrase? Think like a refugee. Act rashly. Abandon anything familiar, and flee complacency. This doesn’t tell the story. Only the story itself tells the whole truth.
I presume you all know the end of my family’s path: the “green boom” we built out of wind power and solar panels and this strange, wondrous metal called neodymium on the parched prairie earth. How we turned a railhead named after the dirtiest fuel of all time east of Lethbridge, Alberta, into the headquarters of a global clean-energy giant. The Lethbridge Renaissance and all that. It all looks so orderly, doesn’t it? Clean Prairie Energy of Coaldale — you could not script it better, could you?
When people hear about business in Alberta nowadays, they no longer think of cattle or oil first; they think of clean energy. This is my father’s enduring legacy, and outside of his family, it remained his proudest achievement to his dying day, just three years ago. A tidy ending to a stirring story.
My father was a master of understatement, and I can hear his voice now, see his long index finger wagging in dismissal. It did not start so tidy, he would say. And he would smile that tight smile of his, a smile that was not about something funny but about something truly awful that had barely been survived. Not so tidy at all, bhai.
What today looks preordained was, in truth, a muddle in the midst of chaos. The climate of southern Alberta has always been harsh — it is a place of ferocious storms and desert-like dry spells, separated sometimes by mere days. But we must recall that even this rough place was unprepared for the calamities of the Great Drought of the ’20s and the wholesale collapse of conventional industrial agriculture around the world. It was as unprepared as anywhere else for the full force of radical climate change that we continue to wrestle with today. The moment my family seized the future was its most desperate moment. We chose to believe in a future we could not see, because we lived in a present that could not sustain us. This is the not-so-tidy truth.
This is why I must go back to the start of the story.
My earliest memories of the family farm in Punjab are like a pendulum swinging recklessly between prosperity and despair, between bumper crop and murderous drought. The good times were well and truly rolling in India in those years, booming new industries and globalization and the level playing field and all that. My father, though, could only see his orders for pesticides and fertilizers growing larger and his neighbours digging deeper each year just to hit water — 50 metres down one year, 60 metres the next.
At a government conference one year, he met a man from Gujarat who told him the annual electricity subsidy he received from the state electricity board to pump groundwater was a greater sum than his farming income. There were cuts to irrigation quotas across northern India around the same time because the glaciers were melting so fast in the Himalayas. This is old news now, of course, but at the time, it was dismissed as a glitch, a passing phase. There were farmers in my father’s district who’d been raised in mud huts and were now never without air conditioning. There were farmers in the neighbouring state who’d sold just half their land to suburban developers and now, working half as hard, drove Mercedes and took their wives on shopping excursions to Dubai.
My father was a careful farmer, conscientious, and though he was making good money, he also understood it was too good to last, this “green revolution,” the talk of his boyhood — the decades of record-breaking yields, fancy new tractors, fertilizers and pesticides, the man from Monsanto going village to village one year giving away Terminator seeds and the Roundup chemicals to keep them alive, then coming back the next to stuff his pocket with rupees because the crops could not regenerate. My father said he felt wrong about it many years before the drought. A seed that cannot make new seeds is the definition of a dead end — this is how he put it. (He was a man of many sayings.)
At another conference, my father met a French agriculturist who had invented a way to grow rice using only half as much water. He switched his whole farm the very next season. Everyone in the district thought he’d gone mad. A few years later, when the irrigation ditches ran dry weeks before the monsoon broke, they started showing up for advice. The year the monsoons failed — 2013, the first year of severe drought in a decade that would see Punjab devastated by it — some came back for food. When the rains returned the next season, my father sold everything he owned and bought plane tickets to Canada.
Some years earlier, an uncle on my mother’s side had moved to British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley. He’d been making good money as a tree-fruit farmer there. My father’s uncle was nearing retirement age, and his kids all worked white-collar jobs in Vancouver or Calgary. My father bought in as a business partner and future heir. Again he saw the inputs piling up and the yields declining, the soil barely kept alive by more and more fertilizer and not enough water in the dry months; again he saw farmers selling out for big bucks to the builders of fancy homes and makers of luxury goods; again no one else saw what my father saw. In the fall of 2016, he sold his share of the farm back to the uncle (who sold it immediately to a winemaker who went bust in the Great Drought) and bought a ticket on a Greyhound bus to Lethbridge.
The next chapter is the best-known part of my father’s story. He’d been selling organic produce from his uncle’s farm at a Calgary market earlier that fall, and he’d gotten to talking to the southern Alberta farmers about where they were headed. The Alberta government, spooked by growing hostility toward the oil sands, had passed a big feed-in tariff that summer to encourage enough clean-energy production to gloss over the Athabasca eyesore. Vendors at the market were leasing land to wind-power developers as fast as they could. My father eventually found a willing seller near Taber, and the next spring, he turned under 300 hectares of Roundup Ready wheat and started rehabilitating the soil. He had some help from some wise and friendly Hutterite farmers nearby, and the next season he planted the land with a strain of wheat he’d dis - covered through the French professor’s work that needed half the water, as well as some organic crops he’d seen selling briskly in Calgary. (Before my family became known for clean energy, Singh’s Greens was known to gourmet chefs across southern Alberta for its top-notch Asian vegetables.)
That first year was a very lean one, but my father had some savings and he spent the winter meeting with members of local Rural Electrification Associations (REAs). Within a few years, these REAs morphed into the clean-energy co-ops that became our company’s first big customers. In those days, they were happy to co-sign loans and find investors for any farmer ready to jump all the way into wind power. Within a few years, wind was the most lucrative cash crop on my father’s farm.
The Great Drought swept across western Canada in 2020, the summer after my first year of sustainability studies at the University of Alberta at Augustana on an REA scholarship. Those years would mark our turning point; as I’m sure you all recall, they were the turning point for much else across Canada as well.
Our quiet little prairie campus roiled more each year with talk of grave crisis and unexpected opportunity. Some of my fellow students left mid-semester in tears to return to failed farms that could no longer supply their tuition. Many who stayed were, like me, more interested in green power than in winter wheat. We had only to look at the TV screens in the common rooms to see the chaos of those pivotal years in high-definition colour.
Everyone here, I’m sure, recalls the cars abandoned to rust at empty gas pumps as prices hit five dollars a litre. Do you remember as well the monsoon-like rains that nearly ruined all of Manitoba’s agriculture (and most of downtown Winnipeg), followed almost the very next month by the first dusty patches of what has become known as the South Saskatchewan Desert? Do you remember the winter the Northwest Passage first remained open to year-round shipping? It was just before the water levels in the Great Lakes fell so low that they became useless as a cargo route for months at a time. The drilling wars in the Arctic Ocean, the final collapse of the Pacific salmon fishery, not to mention the international bulletins with images of Bengali refugee camps and Peruvian water riots and the Last Inundation of New Orleans. These were deeply troubled times.
Near the end of my second year, a guest speaker came to campus, some journalist from Calgary — his name has long escaped me — who had written a couple of books several years before about the opportunities buried in this chaos. I remember he seemed quite weary, as if he’d been saying the same thing over and over for far too long. More than that, though, I remember his vivid images of Germany’s vast offshore wind farms, the Indian solar industry’s boom, the great electric-car factories of Shenzhen — China’s “New Detroit.” He also had pictures of prosperous Atlantic Canadian aquaculture and fruit orchards in the Peace Country of northern Alberta, the wind-turbine plants of Windsor and Oshawa, Bixi’s mammoth bike factory in Montréal.
The CPR tracks were visible from our farmhouse’s back porch, and that summer, I became an enthusiastic trainspotter. I watched endless westbound trains roll through, the cars stamped with names like Avalon Rare Metals and Great Western Minerals and overflowing with some gleaming silver rock. I did a little digging and discovered the bulk of the shipments consisted of a “rare earth” metal called neodymium. Some of the world’s richest deposits of the stuff were in northern Saskatchewan. It was shipped to Vancouver and, from there, it went either to Shenzhen to be used in electric-car batteries or through the Northwest Passage to Europe to be smelted into the magnets that drive wind turbines. I noticed shorter eastbound trains — laden, of course, with Chinese cars, but also with wind-turbine blades and cheap Chinese solar-panel components, as well as advanced thin-film and organic photovoltaics from Germany and Spain. (Some of the oldtimers in southern Alberta still marvelled at all those European goods headed east, remembering the days before year-round shipping via the Northwest Passage turned Vancouver into the preferred port of entry for practically every Canadian destination west of Toronto.)
Thanks to our dozen wind turbines and the leases we’d given to three dozen others, my father was one of the few farmers in the region to survive the Great Drought in the black, and he was an increasingly respected voice in regional financial and political circles. I convinced him that all that to and fro of rare metal and power-plant parts was a supply chain begging to be shortened. To my eternal surprise, he agreed. As I said off the top, we happened to be in the right place at the right time, and I guess we were the right people — refugees accustomed to making big leaps into the unknown in the midst of dramatic change. The rest of the story is, I suppose, the reason you’ve all come to hear me tell it in the first place.
We began, as you may know, with solar power in the spring of 2022. It was the most promising untapped market — my father always had a nose for underserved markets. It apparently took a Punjabi to point out to the folks in Edmonton that southeastern Alberta is the sunniest patch of land in all of Canada. With a bank loan against the wind farm and some seed capital from the Alberta government’s moribund heritage fund, we bought some cheap warehouse space at a railhead east of Lethbridge, the site in Coaldale where you’ll still find our headquarters today. We incorporated as Clean Prairie Energy and started taking shipments of Chinese and German solar components.
I worked the panel assembly line every summer until I earned my degree. By 2024, we were churning out three gigawatts of solar each year, much of it installed right in Alberta by the clean-energy co-ops. We expanded into neodymium refining the following year, and by 2030, we were the leading supplier of wind-turbine magnets in the world. Clean Prairie became North America’s leading manufacturer of electric-car batteries a few years after that. We were soon operating manufacturing, refining and research facilities across the prairies, with enough of it concentrated in the Lethbridge area that everyone started calling it the Lethbridge Renaissance. In 2037, we introduced our first gamechanging product: the CPE Ten-Second Charger, the first nanotech-powered car battery at commercial production scale. It has become the industry standard for electric vehicles.
My father was not a man to gloat, and he was never content with what we had achieved. He always told me, “You must never forget you are a refugee. Your story can be redeemed, but at its very heart, it remains a story of tragedy.”
Surely none of us who watched in horror as the world’s coral reefs died en masse over the last decade from acidification caused by carbon dioxide clouds we made a generation ago would argue with him on this point. We will never get those reefs back, much as we will never again see a rice farm in Punjab or a fruit tree in the Okanagan desert or a polar bear anywhere in this country outside a zoo. But we have turned the corner: Canadian greenhouse-gas emissions are barely a quarter of where they were at the start of the Great Drought and are declining more steeply every year, and global greenhouse-gas emissions have gone down nearly as far. The climate of our grandchildren will never again be the one of our grandparents — never as placid and predictable, maybe never as fertile — and there will no doubt be great losses still to come, but our course is, for the first time in three centuries, fundamentally sustainable. I can only hope that is redemption enough for us all.