Climate Corps 2010: A Wealth of Energy Savings at Golden Arches

On average, it serves 60 million customers a day through more than 32 thousand restaurants in nearly 120 countries around the world – that’s McDonald’s, where I worked as an EDF Climate Corps fellow this summer.

I helped the worldwide energy team with its energy efficiency efforts in restaurant buildings and kitchen equipment.

The most thrilling part of the job? Realizing the scale of the potential impact such an organization could make and being involved in that process.

Equally as exciting was my role as a part of a long-standing partnership at the intersection of business and the environment. McDonald’s collaboration with Environmental Defense Fund goes back to 1990, when the two first joined forces to explore whether the company could benefit the environment without affecting the bottom line. A major outcome of this initial partnership was the replacement of polystyrene foam sandwich packaging with paper-based wrapping, which reduced packaging volume, landfill space, energy usage, pollutant releases and all the associated costs.

Another rippling outcome of the partnership was the improvement in energy efficiency. By 2000, a decade after the parties examined various opportunities for reducing environmental impact in ways that made business sense, McDonald’s cut more than 510 million kilowatt-hours of electricity usage and 4,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions through installing energy-efficient lighting in its restaurants. And the ripple continues to prevail – Today, new McDonald’s restaurants in the U.S. are equipped with energy-efficient features such as LED signage, high-efficiency HVAC systems and low-proximity kitchen equipment exhaust hoods, to name a few.

As excited as I was about working with McDonald’s this summer, given all that’s been done over the last 20 years I had to ask myself, “What’s left there for me to do?”

In my first weeks, I learned about trends over the recent years that have made energy management even more challenging. For example, many of McDonald’s restaurants now operate for longer hours; McDonald’s has been putting more kitchen equipment into its restaurants to support menu expansion; and energy has been deregulated in many markets. While McDonald’s continues to drive energy efficiency in spite of these trends, prioritizing efforts and tracking results continue to pose additional challenges.

So my role this summer was to help McDonald’s address these challenges with an outside-in perspective. As part of this project, I worked with the McDonald's worldwide energy director to develop a tool that quantifies financial and environmental impact of the company's energy efficiency efforts and investments for prioritization. I was stunned when I first tried analyzing a sample set of data and found that I couldn’t open the file with Excel due to the massive volume – there’s a lot of square footage, revenue, guest counts, utility rates, climate zones, emission factors and other variables to deal with.