McDonald's Corp. is encouraged by the results of a Rocky Mountain Institute-led study of the technical and financial feasibility of building stand-alone restaurants that produce as much energy annually as they use. The fast-food giant, with 36,000 outlets in over 100 nations, hopes to lead the way toward reducing energy use in the fast-food industry by developing a road map, starting with a net-zero energy study.

"We are optimistic [this can be done], but it's too early for a timetable," says Roy Buchert, energy director for McDonald's restaurant solutions group.

According to the U.S. Dept. of Energy, the U.S. quick-service restaurant sector uses 120 trillion Btu of energy each year, spread across 260 million sq ft, at a cost of $2 billion. Efficient restaurant designs could save more than 50% of that energy used, says Roy Torbert, the study's project manager for the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI).

Fisher-Nickel Inc., a kitchen-equipment technology consultant, and the New Buildings Institute (NBI), were also involved in the study.

For the work, RMI modeled energy-use scenarios for new, stand-alone restaurants in Chicago, Orlando and Washington, D.C. Among the findings, reaching net zero begins with a 60% energy- efficiency improvement against an already efficient prototype.

Remaining energy needs can be met with a 300-kW photovoltaic system installed over the building and parking lot. Energy costs could be slashed by 85% to 95% over the average U.S. restaurant's current energy costs. The additional capital to achieve net zero is mainly the cost of the solar.

For fast-food outlets, the big energy hogs are the air-conditioning and the kitchen equipment. The equipment is typically looked at in isolation, but to achieve energy conservation, there needs to be a whole-building approach to design, says Ralph DiNola, NBI's CEO.

Focusing on the energy hogs could reduce energy consumption by 65% to 75%. "To get to net zero, we are going to need those kinds of savings," says DiNola. "The study is the starting point."