Rooftop solar power is the next item on the menu for Chipotle Mexican Grill (CMG).

The popular burrito chain announced today it had plans to install solar panels atop 75 restaurants during the next 12 months. Collectively, the panels will produce 500 kilowatt hours of electricity. That will make Denver-based Chipotle the largest direct producer of solar power in the restaurant business, according to the company's press release and an article in Environmental Leader.
The announcement suggests how much room there is to run for the nation's restaurants as they look to cut costs, enhance efficiency and tighten belts in the face of what could be an excruciatingly slow recovery. Chipotle runs 830 restaurants nationwide. A significant portion of those are located in single-story developments, allowing for rooftop energy production. Multiply the number out and Chipotle could conceivably become a multi-megawatt producer of solar power.

And Chipotle is one of the smallest among the major restaurant chains. McDonald's (MCD), Burger King (BKC), TacoBell (YUM), Wendy's (WEN) and others all dwarf Chipotle in total number of locations. The largest single fast food chain, McDonald's, has 32,000 restaurants operating under its brand in more than 100 countries. Let's do the math out on that. Assume that one-quarter of the locations are solar friendly and McDonald's could crank out upwards of 50 megawatts globally. That's enough power to displace a small power plant, and is roughly enough to reduce production at the average coal-fired power plant in North America by about 10 percent.

The Chipotle solar program underscores the advantages large restaurant chain operators have in pushing green initiatives. Company founder and co-CEO Steve Ells feels the solar effort is a natural progression of the company's stated mission to revolutionize fast-food by enhancing sustainable practices in sourcing, logistics, and restaurant operations. Chipotle already has eco-friendly LEED-certified restaurants in Illinois and Long Island, with a third on the way in Minneapolis. For the solar deal, Chipotle went with a single solar panel installer and integrator, Standard Renewable Energy of Houston.

Because it can purchase a very large number of panels and negotiate a far better price than the stand-alone restaurant operator, Chipotle can also do the fancy financial footwork, should it so desire, to enter into a Power Purchase Agreement with a financing group. General Electric (GE) and Goldman Sachs Group (GS), among others, regularly do this sort of deal, which allows a business operator to pay little or nothing for the panels and installation up front. Instead, the business agrees to pay a set rate for electricity. The rate may remain stable or steadily rise.

If Chipotle (or any other chain) wants to save even more on energy costs, it can use solar-powered hot water heaters. Such systems are very common in Florida and Hawaii but can be effective in most parts of the country. That's because heating hot water with the Sun is far more efficient than using the Sun to generate electricity, at least with the present technology.

Another efficient way to harness the Sun to save power is solar-powered air conditioning. In those systems, the Sun's heat warms a condenser that is used to reconstitute liquid. Sopogy, a Hawaii-based concentrated solar energy provider, plans to release the first-ever rooftop concentrated solar power system next week. That system, which can produce electricity, hot water, or be used to power solar air conditioning, is specifically targeting customers like stand-alone restaurants. At present, government subsidies for installation of efficiency technologies lag behind more generous offerings for power generation. That's a mistake which could soon be rectified.

Naturally, Chipotle's solar plan is precipitated not only by a desire to be a better corporate citizen but also by boffo federal and state subsidies as well as regional utility rebates. The initial installations will mostly be in the Southwest, South and West in order to capitalize on higher rebates and better access to good weather and direct sunlight. All told, the initiative is expected to reduce global CO2 emissions by roughly 41 million pounds. If it catches on, then Chipotle could end up helping to displace a lot more CO2 than that -- and reposition the fast food sector as a key leader in the move to green America.

Alex Salkever is Senior Writer at AOL Daily Finance covering technology and greentech. Follow him on twitter @alexsalkever, read his articles, or email him at alex@dailyfinance.com.

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