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Practical Magic

Give it up for these examples of net-zero innovation

Zero-carbon technologies and approaches being deployed at the Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle and the McDonald's flagship restaurant in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, show what's possible.

McDonald's flagship restaurant in Lake Buena Vista, Florida

What makes the 8,024-square-foot McDonald's restaurant unique is its net-zero-energy status — it relies completely on on-site renewable power.

Many of the most heralded sustainability commitments this year (Microsoft, Unilever and Amazon leap to mind) have been accompanied by deeper commitments to carbon neutrality in the short term — promises made possible by a revived interest in credits and offset markets tied to natural climate solutions such as reforestation or regenerative agriculture. 

Investments in actual carbon removal projects, such as the ones identified by payments software company Stripe that I wrote about in May, have been slower to materialize. That’s why I’m stepping back this week to share information about two corporate initiatives prioritizing investments in on-site technologies that actually move buildings toward that elusive net-zero operational status.

The first is a newly remodeled McDonald’s restaurant that opened in early July (for takeout at least) at the Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. What makes the 8,024-square-foot location unique is its net-zero-energy status — it relies completely on on-site renewable power. Yes, even the fries are cooked courtesy of the sun. The site is capable of generating up to 704,791 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually; the company estimates the site will use about 400,000 kWh, based on energy-efficiency upgrades.

What makes this possible? It’s a combination of things: Solar on the rooftop and also scattered in the parking lot, photovoltaic glass for an extra boost, a passive ventilation system that is automated to respond to outdoor weather conditions and provide cooling to minimize use of heating or air conditioning, and sensors that put the kitchen equipment into standby mode to use less electricity when idle. 

Louvers in the photovoltaic glass are automated for ventilation

Automated louvers in the photovoltaic glass help the restaurant dramatically decrease its reliance on heating or air-conditioning. Photo by Ross Barney.

The site literally will be a test kitchen for these technologies, as well as others focused on water.

"This location is unique in that its large real estate facilitates the use of sustainable and renewable technologies," wrote Max Carmona, senior director of U.S. restaurant design at McDonald's, in response to my questions about the project. "As such, the global flagship will serve as a global learning hub for McDonald’s to test solutions for reduction in energy and water use, as well as maximizing the generation of renewable energy. We will leverage data and key learnings to determine what is possible to scale in our restaurants and to influence the broader industry, though acknowledge that restaurants in the U.S. and around the globe will have varying approaches to reducing their environmental impact."

I’d be willing to bet you’ve heard about the second project that caught my attention: the much-ballyhooed redevelopment of the Seattle home for the three-time WBNA championship team Seattle Storm and the new NHL Seattle franchise (hail Kraken!), christened Climate Pledge Arena by hometown corporate sponsor Amazon. The building has 18,100 seats and is expected to host 200 events annually.

The facility is touted as the first in the world qualified for the Zero Carbon certification by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI). Like other standards, this one tolerates offsets, but Amazon and the operations company that will run the arena, Oak View Group, are investing in measures that should minimize those. (By the way, McDonald's is also working with ILFI on a Zero Energy certification for its Florida restaurant.)

Here are some highlights:

  • All of the equipment within the stadium will be all-electric, including heating and ventilation systems, the kitchens serving the concessions and even the system for creating and maintaining the ice (yes, even the Zamboni groomer!). No natural gas or fossil fuels allowed.   
  • The iconic, 44-million-pound roof is being reused, which significantly decreases the embodied carbon associated with construction.
  • At least 75 percent of food for events will be sourced locally and managed on a seasonal menu.
  • The ice will be created using reclaimed rainwater (pretty rare).
  • The containers will be compostable. No single-use plastics will be allowed.
  • Aside from the solar panels being installed on the atrium and parking garage, the arena also will use offsite renewable energy.
  • The ticketing process was integrated with the local public transit system, so that fans can travel for free during events. An old monorail on the site was reinvigorated for more options.
A rendering of Climate Pledge Arena

The arena's iconic roof was reused in construction, greatly decreasing the embodied carbon associated with the project.

I spoke this week with two individuals deeply engaged in the planning process: Chris Roe, who leads the energy and sustainable operations team at Amazon; and architect Jason McLennan, founder and chairman of ILFI, and a consultant to the project. "This is not a normal office-building sort of challenge," McLennan said, comparing the process of operating an area to assembling a small city in one place for a discrete amount of time.

One of the most difficult changes, from a culture perspective, will be the move to the induction equipment within the kitchens. "When you’re trying to feed that many people quickly, everything is different," he noted. And while all-electric appliances exist, they haven’t really been available at the scale needed by the arena.

Another big challenge: meeting the NHL’s standards for ice clarity, while using rainwater as the source for the ice. An all-electric humidifier will keep it from fogging up. (Currently, only one other NHL franchise, the Minnesota Wild, uses the same technology.

The software that Amazon uses internally to track things such as power consumption, water usage and solid waste will be used to measure the arena’s operations and disclose the metrics on its public website. "We’ll look for ways to engage with the fan base," Roe said.

This article first appeared in GreenBiz's weekly newsletter, VERGE Weekly, running Wednesdays. Subscribe here. Follow me on Twitter: @greentechlady.

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