Renewable Heating And Cooling

RHC for Restaurants

About This Sector

Photo: dishes in a dishwasher tray at a restaurant

In 2003, the United States had more than 297,000 “food service” buildings, which included more than 1.6 billion square feet of space.1 Food service includes fast food, restaurants, and cafeterias. These buildings used more than 427 trillion Btu of energy:2

  • 67 trillion Btu for water heating
  • 71 trillion Btu for space heating
  • 29 trillion Btu for space cooling

Food service establishments spent nearly $7 billion on energy-related expenses in 2003.3 These buildings use large amounts of hot water to meet cooking, cleaning, dishwashing, and food preparation requirements.

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Sector Opportunities and Challenges for Project Development

Several factors make buildings in the restaurant sector good candidates for renewable heating and cooling (RHC) projects:

  • Restaurants often exhibit large and relatively consistent demand for hot water on a daily and seasonal basis.
  • Restaurants can meet up to 70 percent of their hot water demand with renewable heating and cooling systems, and they can often achieve a return on investment in less than 5–7 years.
  • As taxable commercial entities, restaurants can take advantage of tax-based incentives and accelerated depreciation schedules.
  • Renewable heating and cooling systems give customers a highly visible example of a restaurant’s commitment to sustainability, and they provide a marketing and public relations opportunity.

Renewable heating and cooling projects in this sector also face some challenges:

  • Awareness among restaurant owners regarding renewable heating and cooling opportunities and benefits is a primary challenge for development.
  • Many restaurants operate out of leased spaces. This arrangement can result in restaurants not having access to their energy use data, and it can complicate decisions related to improving building energy systems. Some building owners might not foresee being in the same building long enough to realize a return on their investment in renewable heating and cooling systems.
  • Some restaurant owners may be concerned with disrupting building operations during project installation. However, with careful planning, systems can be designed to limit disruption and be installed during periods when the least impact will be felt.
  • Some restaurants may have limited space for siting renewable heating and cooling systems. In particular, fast food restaurants often have limited roof space that is already congested with mechanical equipment, leaving little room for the addition of renewable heating or cooling systems.

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Costs of RHC Technologies

The total cost of developing renewable heating and cooling systems can vary based on a number of factors, including the state policy environment, physical geography, available incentives, labor rates, and more. The following cost information is sourced from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)4 and should not be interpreted as statistically accurate or sector-specific, but instead should be taken only as rule-of-thumb information and used only for a first-pass screen of economic viability. Visit NREL's website for more detailed information about other costs and typical project lifetimes.

Solar Technologies
Technology type Mean installed cost
($ per square foot)
Installed cost range
(+/- $ per square foot)
Operation and
maintenance cost
Solar water heating:
flat-plate and evacuated
tube collectors
$141 $82 0.5 to 1.0%
of initial installed cost
Solar water heating:
plastic polymer collector
$59 $15 0.5 to 1.0%
Geothermal Technologies
Technology type Mean installed
cost ($ per ton)
Installed cost
(+/- $ per ton)
Operation and
maintenance cost
Ground source heat pump $7,518 $4,164 $109 +/- $94
Biomass Technologies
Technology type Mean installed
($ per kilowatt)
Installed cost
range (+/- $
per kilowatt)
Fixed operation and
maintenance cost
($ per kilowatt)
Biomass wood heat* $600 $361 $91 +/- $33

*Biomass wood heat converted from thermal energy capacity (Btu per hour)

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U.S. Energy Information Administration. 2008. 2003 Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey. Table B1. Summary Table: Total and Means of Floorspace, Number of Workers, and Hours of Operation for Non-Mall Buildings, 2003.
U.S. Energy Information Administration. 2008. 2003 Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey. Table E1. Major Fuel Consumption (Btu) by End Use for Non-Mall Buildings, 2003.
U.S. Energy Information Administration. 2008. 2003 Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey. Table C4. Expenditures for Sum of Major Fuels for Non-Mall Buildings, 2003.
National Renewable Energy Laboratory. 2013. Distributed Generation Renewable Energy Estimate of Costs. Updated August 2013.