In a bold move, McDonald’s is considering taking the leap to net-zero. A study prepared by Rocky Mountain Institute, Fisher Nickel, Inc. and New Buildings Institute examines the technical and financial feasibility of achieving net zero energy status in restaurants in three cities: Chicago, Orlando and Washington, D.C. This in-depth analysis, completed with the cooperation of McDonald’s internal experts and equipment suppliers, puts forth a set of conceptual energy conservation strategies that would enable McDonald’s to meet its target.
For starters, the report notes that to achieve net-zero energy (NZE), a McDonald’s restaurant must offset its energy consumption with on-site renewable energy generation. This accounts for almost half of the energy offset. A restaurant’s inherent high energy density factor (a lot of energy used within a small physical footprint) means it will require a large solar PV system to achieve net-zero. Energy efficiency is critical. And not surprisingly, kitchen equipment is the most significant building energy end-use in a McDonald’s restaurant.
The energy efficient burger
The study points out kitchen equipment can consume more than 50 percent of the energy in a new McDonald’s restaurant. Through strategic comparisons, the RMI team uncovered both near-term and future kitchen equipment upgrades that can cut kitchen energy use in half. The team’s analysis also suggested ways to reduce idle energy consumption (equipment energy consumption when food items are not being cooked) and increase overall kitchen equipment efficiency without disrupting McDonald’s typical pattern of operation.
The company currently encourages the use of low-oil-volume fryers and custom exhaust hoods that make ventilation more efficient (which also reduces heating and cooling loads). Knowing there is way more that can be done, McDonald’s has been putting the pressure on kitchen equipment suppliers to improve energy efficiency for years. One of the most practical takeaways from the study is for McDonald’s to work with key equipment suppliers to focus on improving the most energy-intensive equipment and wherever possible combine pieces of equipment.
Think outside the grill
Of course, there’s more to McDonald’s energy needs than mere burger production. The building has other needs, such as customer and employee comfort. Using a whole-systems approach, the team looked at the ways that building systems interact. Where it made sense to, they leveraged the interactions between building systems. For example, HVAC energy consumption is very closely tied to kitchen equipment energy consumption. To maintain indoor air quality and comfortable temperatures, the cooking process requires mechanical ventilation. The use of targeted ventilation strategies, paired with solar thermal, geothermal and waste heat loops, could save 90 to 95 percent of HVAC system energy use in a NZE venue.
Bright lights, big savings
McDonald’s intends to prioritize these findings over time and eventually wants to design and build a pilot NZE restaurant to act as a “learning lab” to test and validate new technologies. Meanwhile, McDonald’s is committed to exploring the more feasible energy efficiency strategies, including research and development to improve kitchen equipment efficiencies in order to reduce overall NZE costs.
If McDonald’s makes good on its word, developing the first net-zero-energy quick-service restaurant can be a powerful tipping point for the industry. It could herald a sea change in how restaurants approach energy. As the report says, “McDonald’s has the power to drive equipment improvements, influence other key players in the industry, and achieve hundreds of millions of dollars in energy savings across the industry each year.”