Book Review - Greg Melville drives a fry-oil-powered car coast to coast in Greasy Rider

Greg Melville had an ambitious plan: to drive across the country from Vermont to California in a 1985 Mercedes diesel station wagon fueled only by used fryer grease. He’d be walking in the footsteps — or, perhaps, driving in the tire treads — of H. Nelson Jackson, the first man to drive across the United States in an automobile in 1903. Gas stations weren’t an option for Jackson, and they wouldn’t be for Melville, either. Jackson’s trip took 63 days; Melville planned to do it in eight.

Greasy Rider: Two Dudes, One Fry-Oil-Powered Car, and a Cross-Country Search for a Greener Future documents the journey Melville and his mechanically inclined friend, Iggy, took in that greased-up wagon. On the way, they visited several facilities focused on advancing sustainable fuel sources, including the American Coalition for Ethanol and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and a slew of restaurants in hopes of scoring some used vegetable oil. “The ideal supplier uses nonhydrogenated oil, like canola or soybean, in its fryers, as opposed to grease from animal fat or hydrogenated oil, which both congeal at higher temperatures,” says Melville in the book. “Asian and Mexican restaurants are considered the best sources because they hardly ever fry meats; and they tend to change their oil frequently.”

Each day they spend on the road, Iggy gives Melville an “errand,” an exploratory road trip assignment that must be completed within a year. Each errand focuses on an aspect of green living or sustainable energy, and the chapters detailing the errands provide some of the most interesting material. The author is disappointed by his hero Al Gore’s green efforts in his quest to find “the ultimate green home.” He visits the über-hip Google headquarters (or Googleplex), which boasts 9,212 solar panels and several well-stocked juice bars. He sees southern Minnesota’s spinning wind turbines, and the less active windmill at McKinney, Texas’ “green” Wal-Mart Supercenter.

Ultimately the book is about preservation. The travelers encounter a few bumps on the road – bad oil, car trouble, a controversial squeegee – but they complete the trip. “It just illustrates the point that there are many options out there,” Melville said in an interview. “If we use some ingenuity ... it eases our dependence on these fossil fuels that are getting more scarce. It’s one of many solutions.”

Greasy Rider comes at the right time, given America’s wasteful ways and skyrocketing gas prices. Melville’s book looks seriously at a number of options, going beyond french fry grease into a whole world of energy alternatives. “If two goobers like us can actually get in a car and drive across the country without fossil fuels or putting a lot of carbon into the air,” says Melville, “the answers for sustainability are easier than people think.”