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Cool It! Eco-Friendly Ice Cream Trucks Are Here to Serve

Vendors warm to the idea of powering their freezers with electric or renewable energy, as the City Council considers a fossil fuel ban.

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An ice cream truck at Battery Park spewed exhaust into the air, Aug. 8, 2023.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The iconic jingle of an ice cream truck heading down the block is a telltale sign of summer. But while frozen treats may be sweet, the noisy rumble and exhaust spewing from the trucks are not.

Enter the idea of powering ice cream trucks with batteries, or with electricity pulled directly from the grid — a concept drawn from the decade-long quest to retool New York City food carts and trucks to pollute less.

“The ice cream trucks are incredibly polluting because they have enormous diesel generators,” said Michael Dubrovsky, an entrepreneur who previously worked to electrify food carts locally. “They’re usually near children’s parks and things like that, so those are really bad.”

Exposure to particulate matter and other types of air pollution can worsen heart and lung diseases, and the persistent loud noise of a generator can cause hearing loss and exacerbate stress.

One ice cream truck burns the equivalent of 83 pounds of coal each day — or more than three propane cylinders for a home grill — according to estimates by the battery company Joule Case. Earlier this month, City Councilmember Lincoln Restler (D-Brooklyn) proposed a bill that would ban ice cream trucks from using fossil fuel generators to power their equipment.

City Councilmember Lincoln Restler proposed a bill to ban fossil fuel generators for ice cream trucks — a tryout of sorts for other food trucks.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

As proposed, the measure would take effect within three years.

“Our three-year timeline gives business owners enough time to make the responsible transition,” Restler said in a statement. “I’m excited to see how they can serve as a model for electrifying mobile food truck vendors.”

Health experts say the goal is a no-brainer.

“Replacing diesel generators or engines in favor of electrification is a positive move that will reduce emissions and air pollution, and as such, improve the air quality for those who may be breathing nearby,” said Trevor Summerfield, the American Lung Association’s director of advocacy for New York.

An ice cream vendor interviewed by THE CITY found the idea of a cleaner truck enticing.

William Arevalo sells soft serve ice cream from a truck in Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens. The 25-year-old, who is in the family business, uses a gas-powered diesel generator that is “the big brain, the heart of the whole truck,” he said.

“One con about it would be the noise it makes. You have that constant rumble behind you and sometimes the heat affects it,” Arevalo said. “They last, but you’re putting a lot of money into it. You lose the money you put in to fix it and the money in sales.”

Fixes to his generator this season cost between $5,000 and $6,000. Arevalo said he’d prefer something quieter and more reliable — but only if the technology made sense and didn’t cost too much to purchase.

“It would be more convenient for work and for the environment, but I think it would be very pricey for a lot of ice cream truck owners,” he said. “I would prefer working with an electric generator, obviously, but I haven’t seen much out there.”

Sounds Sweet

Powering ice cream trucks — and food carts — with cleaner sources of energy is happening locally on a small scale already.

In New Jersey, the arrival-on-demand ice cream Scream Truck had rechargeable batteries installed on four of its 12 trucks to replace diesel-powered generators — though the engines still run on gas. Each truck has eight to 12 batteries, which can power the trucks for about 10 hours. 

Though it took some trial and error to find the right configuration, Scream Truck founder and CEO Eric Murphy said he’s happy with the switch.

“It’s a much better experience for the customer. There’s no noise, no fumes like there would be with a gas generator and no fumes for the people working on the truck,” Murphy said. “Drivers are much happier [because] gas generators are pretty intimidating.”

The upgrade costs about $60,000 to $65,000 per truck, a hefty investment compared to generators, which cost about $20,000 to $25,000, according to Murphy. But he anticipates recouping the expenses within a year, since he no longer must buy fuel or perform repairs when generators break.

“Why should somebody switch over? Outside of the noise pollution, the smell, your health and doing the right thing for the planet, it’s a good financial investment,” said Justin LeVrier, vice president of sales at Joule Case, which outfitted Scream Truck’s vehicles.

Joule Case also provided the batteries that are at the center of an experiment run by the Street Vendor Project to replace gas or diesel generators in food carts. At a cost of about $4,000 per battery per cart, the initial investment poses a serious barrier for many vendors.

Some of Joule Case’s retrofitted food trucks have solar panels on them in addition to battery packs, but that’s not entirely feasible in New York City due to the shadow-casting buildings that darken many city streets, especially in Manhattan.

Murphy said he anticipates having fully electric trucks by the middle of next year.

Taking a different approach is the New York City-based company ZEVV, which builds “top-to-bottom” electric food carts and trucks so neither their food operations nor engines rely on fossil fuels, said Max Crespo, the founder.

While Crespo said the company has built over 30 trucks so far, he noted that widespread deployment and adoption will pose a problem, given the lack of charging infrastructure to support electric vehicles.

“It’s going to be very difficult,” Crespo said. “How many electric vehicle chargers are on city streets in Manhattan open to the public?”

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