From an environmental point of view, the most magical new attraction at the Magic Kingdom this year isn’t a ride or show. It’s a McDonald’s – the first of its kind anywhere – that generates all its own energy from renewable sources.

And three Nicholas School alumnae helped bring it to life.

The restaurant, located on the west side of the Walt Disney World Resort near the All-Star Resorts complex, harnesses central Florida’s abundant sunshine to generate 700,000 kilowatts of electric power each year, with a majority coming from 1,066 rooftop solar panels and 1,500 square feet of solar glass panels on the outdoor porch.

More than 600 square feet of louver windows open and close automatically to bring in cooler air and push out warmer air. Solar power poles illuminate the parking lot at night, and stationary energy bikes give customers the chance to get in some cardio while lighting up the restaurant’s golden arches. 

Identifying the mix of ingredients needed to make this dream a reality has been under way at McDonald’s since at least 2013, when the corporation invited a trio of Nicholas School Master of Environmental Management (MEM) students to conduct initial research on the feasibility of building a net-zero energy restaurant.

Lane Wallace, Emily Conner, and Maria Ramirez Millan—all 2014 graduates of the Nicholas School with interests in renewable energy —undertook the challenge as their Master’s Project.

“From the outset, we knew we were shooting for the moon,” recalled Wallace, now vice president for development at Nest Homes in Mooresville, N.C.  She explained that quick-service dining has one of the higher energy-use intensities (EUI) of all building types and industries in the world. The EUI for the typical fast-food restaurant is almost double that of nearly any other type of building.

“It was the biggest energy challenge we could imagine, especially when undertaken by a company that prides itself on high volume and consistent quality,” Wallace said. “We realized that if a quick-service restaurant can achieve net-zero energy, then all buildings and industries could achieve that kind of win, too.”

Knowing their work would help one of the world’s most influential corporations reduce its greenhouse gas emissions was a huge motivation, said Ramirez Millan, now a senior strategist at DTE Energy in Detroit.