As one might expect, life in the fast-food industry moves swiftly. That may help explain why Ed McCammon of The Winning Team, the local Arby’s franchise holder, tends to pepper his conversations with acronyms. It’s quicker, for instance, to describe the roast-beef-sandwich chain as a “QSR” than a quick-service restaurant, or to characterize its mission as serving up “QF3” (quality food, fast and friendly).
And when it comes to finding ways to reduce energy consumption while saving money, McCammon and his business partner, JoAnn Yoder, are quick to catch on. In a partnership with Appalachian Energy, the Arby’s on Airport Road in Arden recently became the first of The Winning Team’s 33 locations to install a solar-hot-water system. A host of elected officials attended a Dec. 3 ceremony and press event, including Asheville City Council member Bryan Freeborn, Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair Nathan Ramsey, Mayor William Moore of Fletcher, state Rep. Bruce Goforth, state Sen. Joe Sam Queen, and Steve Green, a field representative for U.S. Sen. Richard Burr.
For eight months, The Winning Team worked with Appalachian Energy, a Fletcher-based renewable-energy specialist, to figure out a viable business structure for retrofitting every last one of the 33 Arby’s restaurants in Western North Carolina. “When [Appalachian Energy] first brought this to us, our challenge was, as businesspeople, not wanting to pass the cost on to the consumers,” McCammon explained. Profit margins are tight in the industry, he noted, adding, “We don’t like to spend any money.” But an innovative financial model removed that initial-cost barrier. That made the difference for Arby’s, said McCammon, adding that it “makes it almost impossible for others not to get on board.”
Arby’s has been around since 1964. Environmentalists, however, have tended to view fast-food restaurants in general as wasteful, unhealthy and interlinked with car culture. But The Winning Team seems determined to get past that stereotype, becoming the first fast-food chain in the region to go solar. And at the end of the day, it’s a savvy business move: The company expects to cut its natural-gas bill for all 33 restaurants by $12,000 annually. Appalachian Energy, meanwhile, estimates that the system will reduce Arby’s annual greenhouse-gas emissions by about 100,000 pounds.
An array of solar panels on the restaurant’s roof heats the water. Arby’s is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, and the system will provide hot water during daylight hours and for several hours at night, thanks to a 108-gallon storage capacity. A natural-gas heater is available as a backup.
“On cloudy days, it still works,” notes Appalachian Energy engineer Erik Ostergaard, because there’s still enough sunlight striking the panels to generate heat. The high-tech system also enables restaurant managers to log onto a Web site (updated every 15 minutes) and determine how many British thermal units are being generated and used. The two businesses hope to get the remaining restaurants retrofitted by early next year; and once that’s done, they envision an ongoing partnership, said Ostergaard. “Whenever they start drawing up plans for new Arby’s, we’ll get involved early on” to guide the design for optimal solar capacity.
Meanwhile, RESCO, Appalachian Energy’s renewable-energy service company division, is working on a number of similar partnerships, reports David Wallace, the company’s vice president of strategic development. Under these arrangements, the company will install, own, operate and maintain a solar-hot-water or other clean-energy system, charging the customer either a fixed monthly rate or an amount based on the actual consumption.
And if this new model catches on, it could result in tremendous environmental gains. By removing the initial barrier posed by up-front costs, Appalachian Energy is aiming for nothing less than transforming the economics of solar energy for businesses with limited capital budgets. “If we can make it work for a fast-food restaurant like Arby’s,” says Wallace, “we can make it work for any business.”
Meanwhile, here in Western North Carolina, we still have a ways to go. According to an EPA-sponsored conversion system, retrofitting those 33 Arby’s outlets will prevent about one-fourth of a railcar of coal from being burned each year. But Progress Energy’s Lake Julian plant burns 10,814 railcars per year.