Greasy Rider: Two dudes, one fry-oil-powered car, and a cross-country search for a greener future
Wed, Dec 17 2008 at 5:02 PM
ROCKET MAN: Greg Melville, seen here taking a much-needed break from driving. (Photo by Ann Marie Johnson)
Why did you decide to drive across the country in your grease-powered station wagon?
First, it had never been done before. A few people had driven buses or vans coast to coast without stopping at a pump, but they hauled along big setups for pumping and filtering oil from restaurant grease dumpsters. As far as I could tell, no one had ever taken a regular old station wagon or car and driven it from one end of the country to the other on less than a tank of fossil fuel. Second, I was trying to make a point. If two regular guys like me and my friend Iggy could get from Vermont to Berkeley without major issues, then it says something about how easily our country could wean off of foreign oil, if we set our minds to it.
Surely there was an environmental element to your trip too, right?
Of course. My wife and I originally got the station wagon and converted it to run on vegetable oil in part to reduce our carbon footprint. A veggie car spews a lot less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The other reason we got the car was to save money on gas. That’s a concept most people can relate to.
For the book you took several side journeys in the car, to places like Fort Knox, the Google headquarters, a green Wal-Mart, and Al Gore’s house in Tennessee. What was the point of these trips?
After the first day or so, I felt like I wasn’t learning enough from our cross-country drive—besides how smelly fryer grease can get if it’s kept in the back of a warm car for too long. So Iggy and I decided that every night he would assign me to do a future side trip to investigate what other advances are being made in America toward a sustainable future. Each trip had to be completed within the following year. As a result, I went to Fort Knox to check out its really impressive geothermal heating system, which saves the Army millions of dollars a year in oil bills, and to Google to see their solar-powered buildings, and to Al Gore’s mansion to check out what I assumed would be the great green home. That last mission was a total failure, though. Al really let me down.
Aren’t you a bit hard on Al Gore? I mean, he won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work on climate change.
I don’t think so. I admire everything he’s done for the environment. But the bottom line is that for us to curb climate change and protect the planet for future generations, we need to make certain individual sacrifices. He’s not making them. Even though his 10,000 square foot mansion is one of the greenest homes in Nashville, it’s still a 10,000 square foot mansion. Ask environmental experts, and they’ll say owning a house that huge is the antithesis of sustainable living. He’s not making any real personal sacrifices in his everyday life to reduce his carbon footprint, and if he can’t lead by example, how can he expect the rest of us to follow?
When you mention sacrifices, are you saying we should protect the environment at the sake of the economic well-being of some Americans?
No, not at all. On the contrary, I think the more we pursue so-called green technologies, the stronger the American economy will become. Take my car, for example. I bought the grease-power conversion kit from a company that bases all of its operations, including manufacturing, in the United States. Also I’m helping a neighborhood restaurant owner cut his waste disposal costs by taking his used fryer grease off his hands. In turn, I’m saving gas money because I’m getting my fuel for free. Everybody wins in this equation. During my travels, I met farmers in Minnesota who were making money by putting up wind turbines, which were built in the US, by the way, on their property. I visited the Google headquarters, where their massive solar power system, also made in America, will pay for itself in energy bill savings in less than a decade. I saw how even Wal-Mart is getting into the act. They’re reducing their transportation costs by millions by installing mini electric generators in their trucks that allow drivers turn on the heat or air conditioning in a parking lot without keeping the engine running.
What sacrifices are you talking about, then?
I’m talking about the size of our homes, the size of our vehicles. I’m talking about spending a little more money to buy local produce, because it reduces the massive greenhouse impact of shipping. I’m talking about making time to take an active role in grassroots politics, to create change. Our nation has rallied together to combat monumental challenges before. Look at the efforts during World War II. We can do it again.
So during your cross-country drive, how messy was the grease?
I think by the third day, every piece of clothing I had was grease-stained. I started having nightmares about spills. I smelled the stuff in my sleep. Worst of all, Iggy somehow managed to stay clean, which grated me more and more as the trip went on. By the end, I practically wanted to take a grease bucket and pour it on his head.
Are you and Iggy still on speaking terms?
After spending so much quality time together in a smelly, greasy old car with broken air conditioning, we needed to part company for a while after the trip. But we’re on good terms again. A short while back, he actually bought a Ford F-250 truck and converted it to veggie oil. I call the thing the Queen Mary. Sometimes he randomly pulls into my driveway to compare vehicle sizes.
Will you two be making any future road trips?
None are in the works right now. My wife has just graduated from medical school and will soon be a very busy resident physician, so I’ll have my hands full with our two kids. And Iggy just got married, so his schedule isn’t quite as free. I still plan on driving the wagon as much as possible, though, until the engine quits.
How long do you think your old wagon will last?
Well, since it has almost 300,000 miles on the odometer, and I’m driving on experimental fuel, I count my blessings every time the thing starts up in the morning.
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