New net-zero McDonald's featuring solar panels, louver windows, and solar powered parking lot lights

Duke students’ energy research bears fruit (and fries) at new global flagship McDonald's

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Thursday, Aug 27, 2020 - 12:39 pm

Not obsessed with fast food industry gossip or with all things Magic Kingdom? You may’ve missed the newest innovation available at the Walt Disney World Resort: a global flagship McDonald’s that is designed to generate all its own energy from renewable sources. 

The restaurant will maximize central Florida’s abundant sunshine to generate 700,000 kilowatts of electric power each year, with a majority coming from 1,066 rooftop solar panels and 1,500 square feet of solar glass panels on the outdoor porch. More than 600 square feet of louver windows will open and close automatically to bring in cooler air and push out warmer air. Solar power poles will illuminate the parking lot at night, and stationary energy bikes will give customers the chance to get in some cardio while lighting up the restaurant’s golden arches. 

McDonald’s has been cooking up this global innovation since at least 2013-2014, when a team of three Duke University energy students helped the corporation conduct initial research on the feasibility of building a net-zero energy restaurant.

Three Duke students in McDonald's aprons pose in the busy kitchen of a traditionally designed McDonald's
Duke students (L to R) Maria Ramirez Millan, Emily Conner, and Lane Wallace visited a traditional McDonald's in 2014 as they conducted research for their master's project on the feasibility of a net-zero energy fast food restaurant.  

Alumnae Lane Wallace, Emily Conner, and Maria Ramirez Millan—all 2014 graduates of the Master of Environmental Management (MEM) program at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment—undertook the challenge as their Master’s Project. The group worked with Steve DePalo, Director of North American Sustainability at McDonald’s, in a responsive and open partnership.

“Innovation has been a key value of McDonald's for over 60 years,” said DePalo. “Working with Duke University, Emily, Lane, and Maria was a critical moment in this project because the feasibility report allowed our teams a unique opportunity to think beyond what ‘was’ and focus on what could be.”

“From the outset of this project we knew we were shooting for the moon,” recalled Wallace, now Vice President for Development at Nest Homes. She explained that quick-service dining has one of the higher energy use intensities (EUI)—or energy use per square foot—of all building types and industries in the world. The EUI for the typical fast-food restaurant is almost double that of nearly any other type of building.

“It is the biggest energy challenge we could imagine, especially when undertaken by a company that prides itself on high volume and consistent quality,” Wallace noted. “We realized that if a quick-service restaurant can achieve net-zero energy, then all buildings and industries could achieve that kind of win, too.”

Team member Ramirez Millan, now a senior strategist at DTE, reflected, “Working with McDonald’s and with my amazing MEM partners was by far one of the highlights of my time at Duke… I’m so thankful for the opportunity Steve and the McDonald’s team gave us to examine the feasibility of this kind of design. Our project only scratched the surface, so it’s very exciting to see where the McDonald’s team took it with their hard work. McDonald’s is one of the world’s most recognizable brands and their time-tested business model has survived decades of competition—if they’re moving toward more sustainable design, it’s a sure bet that other companies will, too.”

The group’s mentor was Dr. Tim Johnson, associate dean of professional programs at the Nicholas School and chair of the energy and environment program. Johnson said, "It is always so fulfilling to see the Nicholas School Master's Projects having visible, real-world impact on industries’ and communities’ approaches to energy and environmental issues. Emily, Maria, and Lane deserve all the credit for an analysis that was easily on par with professional work. And their project certainly helped each of them land impressive positions in industry and government."

According to a McDonald’s press release, data and lessons learned from the new restaurant will inform its future efforts to progress toward its science-based target, specifically its efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 36% in restaurants and offices by 2030 compared to a 2015 base year. 

“This net zero-energy designed global flagship restaurant represents so much to McDonald’s," said DePalo. “It epitomizes our unwavering commitment to sustainability innovation and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Yet equally important, it is a key milestone on our journey to identify meaningful solutions to climate change.”

Team member Conner, a former student assistant at the Energy Initiative and now an energy manager for a federal agency, noted, “Our team’s experience studying energy at Duke—both within the Nicholas School’s MEM program and through Duke’s interdisciplinary community of energy students and faculty—really prepared us to be resourceful and creative in approaching this problem.”

Conner has advice for Duke students interested in energy: “Whether you’re an undergraduate or a grad student, get connected with the Energy Initiative NOW. Take advantage of all the ways they can help you engage with professionals who work on energy, climate, and sustainability issues. Say yes to real-world research projects, then bring all your drive and creativity and skills to the table. You may be ‘just a student’ but you never know what the impact could be—for your career and for the world.”

The net-zero energy designed McDonald’s is located in Orlando on the west side of Disney’s property on Buena Vista Drive near the All-Star Resorts, which are currently closed. The restaurant—currently in its initial “soft-launch” period—is only open for drive-through and McDelivery service at this time.

Want to keep up with Duke University energy events, opportunities, and news? Sign up for the Energy Initiative's email list.

Interested in learning more about Duke’s Master of Environmental Management program and how to apply?
Here’s some helpful info.

Curious about how your company can benefit from working with a bright, motivated team of Duke MEM students on a Master’s Project?
Contact Dr. Timothy Johnson, Nicholas School of the Environment.