For Street Carts, Is Cleaner Power as Easy as Swap Out, Plug In, Turn On?

A red food cart that sits on the corner of 17th Street and Broadway in New York City’s Union Square may not look different from the thousands of others scattered throughout the city, but it is unique in at least one way and that way has nothing to do with food. This Rafiqi’s cart, which serves up a high volume of halal fare to hungry New Yorkers, lacks the hammering sound of a generator that most food truck customers — and vendors — are all too familiar with: Instead, it’s plugged into a curbside charging station.

Such charging stations, installed by Simply Grid, a start-up co-founded in 2010 by Jeffrey Hoffman and Michael Dubrovsky, are sleek, unassuming pedestals that take up less space than a newspaper box and allow mobile vendors to hook up whatever it is they need powered to the electric grid. Users simply plug in to the pedestal, instead of a generator, then send a text message to turn the power on or off.

Asim Rafiqi, who has been participating in a Simply Grid pilot program since September 1, 2013, sees a number of benefits. “Cost-wise and headache-wise,” Rafiqi said, “this doesn’t give you headaches at all.”

A Low Headache Factor

Those headaches are both figurative and literal. With more than 60 percent of New York City’s street food vendors using gasoline- or diesel-powered generators, cocktails of toxic air pollutants are served up alongside the on-the-go meals, pollutants such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) [pdf], nitrogen oxide and particulate matter. And these pollutants carry a variety of health risks including asthma attacks, cancer, damage to the nervous system, respiratory problems, heart and lung disease, and death.

Noise, another health risk, tops the list of grievances Rafiqi ticks off.

Rafiqi is one of five brothers famed in NYC street-food circles for their long-lived Rafiqi’s food-cart dynasty. All but one of his family’s 18 red carts run off a generator, and he is familiar with the headaches that go along with the job. He continues to list them.

Along with noise are vibrations, the kind that follow you home, making you feel like your whole body is still shaking hours after closing shop, he says. Other issues with generators include shutdowns from missed oil changes, problems with burnt-out sparkplugs, robberies and fires (see also here).

He says Simply Grid gave him only three or four problems over the past year, and it provides on-demand power. Generators provide limited power within a given time frame, Rafiqi says, while Simply Grid provides power when it’s needed — like “regular electricity,” an advantage that allowed him to use a heater last winter, something he couldn’t do with a generator.

The price looks promising too. Compared to generator costs, estimated at upwards of $500/month, Simply Grid’s monthly costs based on hourly access to the pedestal should fall in the $300-$400 range, Hoffman said.

And what’s more, grid power could help cut down on the toxic air pollutants from generators, thus reducing a number of health risks to city dwellers.

The Costs and Benefits When It Comes to Pollution

Simply Grid’s power solution is slowly building steam. Just this month the company announced a deal with the New York City Fire Department to provide ambulance electrification, a growing trend with emergency vehicles to keep their many onboard electronics juiced up and ready to go and a trend that may deliver more than easy-access power.

With many ambulances already equipped with the plug-in technology that allows them to charge at a base station, Simply Grid will enable them to plug in when they are idling curbside, at ERs, and so forth.

“In NYC,” Hoffman wrote in an email, “the FDNY alone has over 600 ambulances idling 10-14 hours a day burning a gallon of diesel per hour. We’re going to fix that.”

Stopping vehicles from idling and switching from diesel- and gas-powered generators to grid power could deliver a number of health benefits.

For mobile food vendors like Rafiqi, the switch to electric power could mean fewer headaches, both figuratively and literally.

One Piece of the Energy Solution Puzzle

Hoffman says that while the numbers vary depending on how efficient and well-maintained a given generator is, “there is no question that replacing a poorly maintained 2-stroke gas generator or a large diesel engine with grid electricity *significantly* reduces urban air pollution. … [W]e believe that our conversions, when counting all-in emissions, effectively take 10+ cars off the road per generator replaced.”

Similar benefits of electrified power over generator power were echoed by Sergej Mahnovski, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, when he said: “’Food carts’ portable generators emit 20 times more asthma causing pollution per unit of energy than the city’s electricity supply.”

Janice Nolen, assistant vice president for national policy for the American Lung Association, also sees some immediate and direct health benefits from powering food carts with electricity instead of a generator — particularly, she emphasizes, for individuals like vendors who are closest to the pollution sources. But she is cautious to qualify the benefits and underline the unknowns.

She uses the example of electric-powered cars.

“While they emit less than the tailpipe of a car,” she said, in many areas “you’re requiring coal-fired power plants to work more because so much coal produces power. That presents a challenge, a challenge that is shifting as we’re getting cleaner power … and more limits on emissions.”

That shift is already evident in New York City. While coal still represents the largest slice of the energy-source pie for electricity in the United States, the Big Apple gets a lot of its electricity from nuclear, natural gas, and hydroelectric power — and hardly any from coal. So NYC may be a good environmental choice for electric power.

But even as cleaner energy sources (and policy solutions and switching to cleaner fuels) slowly erode background levels of pollution, each “solution” is only so clean.

“Less pollution is always better,” said Nolen, “but figuring out how much would be challenging.”

To truly quantify the pollution benefits from Simply Grid, she said, a study would be needed, one that could somehow separate out the power sources the company would be replacing from the many similar sources of pollution (e.g., surrounding traffic, ocean vessels). That is a tall order. And at present such studies appear to be few and far between.

“We have to recognize however helpful it might be,” she adds, “it’s part of a large process to get cleaner air from transportation and energy sources.”

The Future

As entrepreneurs, politicians, scientists and others move the pieces around the giant puzzle of cleaner energy, Simply Grid plugs away at fitting itself into a bigger part of the emerging picture.

In addition to their other pilot project in Atlanta and the recently announced ambulance electrification program, expansion plans include projects in Houston and a large city on the West coast.

And there may be a boost for charging those electric cars.

Hoffman thinks Simply Grid could help solve the “chicken and egg” problem of having too few EVs on the road to justify the capital costs of charging infrastructure and having too little infrastructure to induce would-be EV buyers.

“Our infrastructure could very easily be used to charge EVs,” said Hoffman, “when they reach critical mass.”

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