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Battery-Powered Food Carts Go for Test Drive on City Streets

The Street Vendor Project hopes rechargeable electric power supplies can improve air quality and reduce fossil fuel use.

March 30, 2023 Samantha Maldonado, The City
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Of the many food carts peddling coffee and hot sandwiches along the perimeter of Zuccotti Park in downtown Manhattan last Tuesday, one was not like the others.

The cart was powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery, rather than the typical exhaust-spewing gasoline or diesel generator.

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Mahmoud Mousa, who operates the cart, was testing the battery as part of a pilot program run by the nonprofit Street Vendor Project to explore the feasibility of replacing polluting generators with a quieter and less noxious power source.

“It’s clean energy. It’s nice for the people and for me,” Mousa said.

Getting food carts off fossil fuels has proven to be difficult. In New York City, companies tried — and failed — to get a similar attempt off the ground a decade ago.

Vendors often work shifts of 12 hours or more, a duration that generators powered by fossil fuel can easily endure. In contrast, finding a battery with a reliable capacity for such a long time — without requiring a plug-in source of electricity and designed to be easy for the vendors to use — is tough.

The Street Vendor Project is trying again. But transitioning the 5,100 permitted street vendors off fossil fuel generators could significantly improve air quality. One report estimated a standard food cart generator spewed about 47 times as much carbon monoxide as a passenger car over a year, and nearly 200 times as much nitrogen oxide. Some experts suggest that could be done as the city builds out charging infrastructure for electric vehicles.

“It’s just like a car that’s idling,” said Mohamed Attia, director of the Street Vendor Project. “It’s impacting the environment. It’s impacting the health of all New Yorkers and — the most important part here — the vendors themselves.”

No Complaints, but Some Challenges

The Street Vendor Project is working with vendors to test two kinds of battery setups, both UL-certified with safety standards: one larger, and two smaller ones that can be connected.

Mousa, 29, who lives in Jersey City, started using a single larger battery at the beginning of March to power the lights, fans and outlets in his cart. He plans to keep it for another few weeks, before passing it on to another vendor.

Throughout the trial period, the battery in Mousa’s cart lasted for the duration of his shift, about 10 hours. When he was finished vending, he charged the battery at the garage where he stores his cart.

“You don’t hear anything with this battery,” said Mousa, as he pointed out the constant whirring coming from a nearby generator attached to a neighboring food cart. “No complaints about it — just one thing: it’s so heavy.”

For Attia, it’s promising that the battery works for Mousa, but his cart is a more compact model. It doesn’t include refrigerators or food warmers. Those carts would require batteries with larger capacity, as would carts manned by vendors who work for longer stretches of time.

One vendor with a shift of almost 20 hours tested a different battery model, but the charge didn’t last, Attia said. Plus, the batteries aren’t waterproof, which might be an issue during heavy summer rains and snowy winters.

A gas can next to food carts across One Liberty Plaza on Tuesday, March 28, 2023.
Gas cans are part of the rig for standard food carts in Lower Manhattan, Tuesday, March 28, 2023. | Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

Another obstacle to overcome before a widespread rollout would be possible is cost. The batteries are pricey — upwards of $4,000, according to Attia, an expense the Street Vendor Project is covering for the pilot program.

“After the testing that’s happening right now, once we identify the right product, we can then see how the vendors want to get involved with this new technology. Some sort of adjustments might need to happen,” he said. In the meantime, he’s passing along feedback to the battery manufacturer.

Like other vendors, Mousa is still using propane, a fossil fuel, to cook his food. Eliminating the propane tanks, which power grills, fryers and coffee machines in the carts, is “our next step,” he said.

Outdated Technology

The last decade has seen similar efforts to move street vendors off fossil fuels.

In 2013, the Bloomberg administration partnered with Con Ed and a company called Simply Grid to allow carts in Union Square to draw power directly from the grid on demand. But after the year-long pilot, there was no path forward to scale up the effort, according to Michael Dubrovsky, a founder of Simply Grid, which was acquired by a company called MOVE Systems in 2014.

“Though the pilot was completely successful, there was just no way to get any regulatory approval to ever install [chargers],” Dubrovsky said. “Now, maybe there’ll be more will to do it because of electric cars. But at the time, the idea was this would help electric cars happen because we would have all this infrastructure.”

Multiple entities, from the utility company to the Department of Transportation, would have to coordinate to install and operate the infrastructure and components that would support it.

Mohamed Attia, the managing director of the Street Vendor Project, is spearheading an experiment to power carts with batteries.
Mohamed Attia, the managing director of the Street Vendor Project, is leading a pilot project to power carts with batteries. | Samantha Maldonado/THE CITY

An additional problem, according to people involved with the project at the time, was that vendors move around and don’t always have consistent locations, so deploying grid connection was a challenge, as was making it work financially.

About two years after the 2013 plug-in pilot, MOVE Systems debuted a cart powered by a battery, a solar panel and back-up natural gas system. Replacing one gasoline-powered cart with a hybrid cart would have the effect of taking 186 cars off the road, according to a 2015 report, and could save over $5,000 a year in energy costs.

Years later, ZEVV, a company that evolved from MOVE Systems, built a battery-powered food cart model. But those remain limited in use. (ZEVV could not be reached for comment.)

“Having food carts run on this outdated technology is bad for the vendors, and it’s sort of slouching towards mediocrity for the city,” said Ari Kahn, a transportation advisor who used to work for Con Ed, MOVE Systems and the Mayor’s Office during the Bloomberg administration. “It’s kind of crazy we’re still using these generators today when we know they’re incredibly polluting.”

Con Ed, the city Department of Transportation and the Mayor’s Office of Climate and Environmental Justice did not respond to requests for comment.

Better Air Quality

Ideally, Attia said, vendors would be able to plug into the grid and take advantage of the same charging infrastructure that is anticipated to support electric vehicles.

“That is definitely something on the horizon, but that is not the first step,” he said. “It’s a very long-term goal.”

In the meantime, the Street Vendor Project is conducting preliminary air quality monitoring tests to understand the effects on pollution and carbon emissions from swapping out a gasoline generator for a battery. Attia said so far he’s noticed a higher amount of particulate matter near carts with gas generators compared to the battery-powered cart.

Exposure to particulate matter and other types of pollution can worsen heart and lung diseases.

The battery testing timeline for the Street Vendor Project’s experiment is up in the air, as is the ongoing funding that would enable further ambitions to take shape.

Attia has a vision to scale up the batteries so that more and more vendors can use them. Beyond the fine-tuning of the technology, Attia plans to conduct extensive education and outreach to vendors about battery safety, in order to avoid the fires that have stemmed from improper maintenance of e-bike batteries.

“We will have the best practices for charging these lithium-ion batteries at the garages and commissaries,” Attia said. “We’ll even be working with the commissary owners to connect them with the manufacturers to ensure that people have the right infrastructure that is needed for the charging to be the safest.”

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