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Are Off the Grid Food Trucks Green?

Off the Grid organizers describe their food truck market concept as a “roaming mobile food extravaganza — bringing you delicious food, with free sides of music, craft and soul.”

On recent Saturdays, several trucks have parked for several hours at the Alameda South Shore Center, drawing crowds with a diverse range of food trucks. Many trucks, however, are outfitted with, or bring along, portable gasoline generators to provide power for their kitchen, raising the question – are off the grid food trucks green?

Earlier this year, the City of Alameda passed an ordinance clarifying local rules for food trucks, and sanctioning five locations, including South Shore Shopping Center, for food truck markets. The ordinance went into effect on February 6th and was celebrated by city officials and local foodies alike for increasing food options and stimulating economic activity.

Off the Grid at Alameda South Shore Center

Alameda Municipal Power, owned by the City of Alameda, bills itself as “The Greenest Little Utility in America!” The utility says that over 80% of its power portfolio comes from clean and renewable sources, and those sources are a major reason why Alameda is “the lowest greenhouse-gas-emitting community in Alameda County and one of the lowest in the State [of California.]”

Last Saturday, Action Alameda News identified at least four trucks that clearly bring gas-powered generators for power instead of drawing power from the local utility; the weekly event at South Shore Shopping Center runs for four hours and is billed as drawing more than 10 trucks. Some trucks have the generators mounted on the front bumper, or even integrated into the truck.

Gas Powered Generator Mounted to Front of Food Truck at South Shore Center

To answer questions of whether or not food trucks are “green,” we turned to Ozzie Zehner, a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley and author of the upcoming book “Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism.”

Mr. Zehner primarily researches the social, political and economic conditions influencing energy policy priorities and project outcomes.

Do food trucks create local emissions, and are those emissions hazardous?
“Food trucks running on gasoline or diesel generators will certainly create localized emissions and particulates. Depending on the model and age of the generator, they may also spit out unburned fuel in the emissions. The health effects to attendees would not be too large since they are exposed to these pollutants only for a few hours. However, the people that operate the trucks would accumulate greater exposure-related risks over time.”

Generator in a Box on the Front of a Food Truck. Alameda South Shore Center

Is there a problem here?
“These generators are also inefficient and expensive in comparison to grid power. So, connecting them to the grid would not only reduce localized emissions and greenhouse gasses, but also reduce operating cost. Such an intervention would also reduce noise, so foodies can chat with their friends about the food rather than listening to the racket of generators. So, if the trucks regularly use the same location, a separately metered utility line would presumably bring a lot of benefit over months and years of operation.”

Is this an acceptable trade-off for the benefits of food trucks? Can foodies enjoy food trucks guilt-free?
“Every electrical generation mechanism has its own set of side effects and limitations – even renewables. In California, almost half of electricity comes from natural gas, which would produce far less pollution and greenhouse gasses than a generator, even after figuring line losses. The balance of electrical power comes primarily from dams, nuclear, and coal. Coal power is imported from the southwest.”

Would food trucks do better to try to source grid power instead of using generators?
“In the larger scheme of things, connecting food trucks to the grid would only yield a small impact on the energy challenges we face. But, it’s likely a winning proposition for everyone involved.”

Representatives from Off the Grid had not responded by press time to an inquiry submitted through their website.

Food Truck and Gas Powered Generator at Alameda South Shore Center

1 comment to Are Off the Grid Food Trucks Green?

  • cg

    Well now, if they plugged into the grid, they couldn’t call it “Off The Grid” anymore, could they? This may be the last bastion of small business free enterprise left in the Bay Area. Please don’t sic the Green Nazis on Off The Grid! Having spent a few hours waiting in line for the delicious, healthy food, my ability to hear conversations around me or my name when called for my order was not impaired by generator noise. I didn’t even notice the generators till I walked around the back of the trucks. I think that’s why the trucks are arranged in a circle, with the generators pointed toward the streets where the cars are.
    Alameda would do more good banning those gas-powered noisy leaf blowers used by every gardener on the island!

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