When asked what Jeff Milloy did on his summer break from Dartmouth University, most of his professors will already know the answer.
Milloy, a Springfield resident, spent six weeks on “The Big Green Bus,” a school bus converted to run on vegetable oil.
“Last year, the whole thing started with a group of Ultimate Frisbee players who wanted to go to a tournament in Seattle,” said Milloy, who will be a sophomore at Dartmouth in the fall. “They decided they wanted to do something different, so they pulled together the money to buy a bus.”
Following the same pattern this year, Milloy and 11 other students spent the spring semester raising money to purchase an old school bus, then learned how to convert the diesel engine into one that would burn vegetable oil, which Milloy said is slightly thicker than diesel.
TO CONVERT the bus to a bio-diesel engine, the students attached at 120-gallon tank to the existing gas tank.
Denver native Forrest Hanson was one of the four students who began planning the trip last fall, inspired by his friends who started the Big Green Bus program at Dartmouth.
“We decided where to go through a variety of things, like where people had relatives and trying to find ways to reach as many people at festivals and events as possible. We started with the 80,000 people at Bonnaroo [Tenn.]," Hanson said. "One day in California, we parked along Cannery Row in Monterey Bay and had a great spot all day."
In the beginning, the bus would start on diesel until the vegetable oil was hot and thin enough to burn in the engine, Milloy said.
“The diesel on its own was getting about 35 miles per gallon, and with the vegetable oil, we got a little better than that,” he said.
They set out from Dartmouth’s Hanover, N.H. campus only an hour after finishing their work on the bus, uncertain it would work, Milloy said.
Their first stop was Bonnaroo, a three-day music festival in Tennessee.
“We were parked in the Green Pod,” Milloy said, an area of the concert site dedicated to environmentally-minded organizations. “We were parked in a great location and spent a lot of time talking to people who walked by.”
From there, it was on to Ohio, then an energy fair in Wisconsin before beginning their West Coast journey in Seattle, in time for the Ultimate Frisbee tournament.
After meeting with city leaders and some of their corporate sponsors across the country, from Google, Cliff Bar and Cyprus in California to a planned meeting with Newman’s Own in Connecticut, the students spent the rest of their summer stopping anywhere they could to talk with large groups of people.
Between their own donations, corporate sponsorships and fund raisers, a total of $50,000 was raised to pay for the trip, Milloy said. “In the beginning, there was a lot of cold calling to get sponsors, but it was pretty exciting because we had to put our own money down to start,” he said.
Along the journey, the bus would stop at diners, restaurants and any place that used large amounts of vegetable oil, hoping for a donation to keep their bus fueled.
“Some places thought we were a scam at first, until we took them to the bus and showed them around,” Milloy said. “Places like Denny’s and Sonic were a big help.”
LIFE ON THE BUS, which was modified on the inside to provide more space for the 12 students to sit comfortably for long periods of time, was a good home for the summer, Milloy said, when the students weren’t staying at the home of someone’s relative.
Milloy said he has not declared a major at Dartmouth yet, but his interest in environmental issues and the science of alternative fuels has been piqued because of this trip.
“I feel obligated now to get something environmentally-friendly when I eventually buy a car,” he said. “There are so many easy little things we can do in our everyday lives, like turning off lights when we leave a room or turning your computer off at night, that can really make a big difference.”
Milloy said he’s never wanted the traditional career path following college, something he was reassured about after meeting with Dartmouth alums across the country who decided to follow their beliefs instead of going directly from college to the secure office job.
In addition to being their mode of transportation on a cross-country road trip, the bus was essential in getting the students’ message out about how small changes can lead to a big difference.
“Alternative fuels and the environment in general are big topics of conversation now," Milloy said. "At the center of this conversation is the diverse array of solutions to our energy needs as a country. This was a great learning experience, to get out into the real world and be part of the real discussion about this.”
One of Milloy’s fellow travelers, Andy Wright of Vienna, will return to campus with one other story: He had the chance to appear on "The Price is Right."
“That was some kind of fluke,” said Wright, a June graduate from the school’s government and anthropology programs.
The students arrived at 6 a.m. to line up for the chance to get into a taping of the game show, and after filling out questionnaires, when the game started, Wright heard his own name called.
“We all went nuts, it was great,” he said. “Being on the show was probably the highlight of the trip.”
A close second was a stop in the Moab National Park in Utah, where they met up with a group of Outward Bound students and instructors.
“Just listening to what they were doing and sharing stories about our trips, it was pretty incredible,” he said. “The whole trip was filled with chance meetings and encounters that made it really unbelievable.”
While looking at an uncertain future and career path, Wright said he hopes to take some of the lessons he learned on this trip with him in his adult life.
“I’m trying to think of what kind of car to buy eventually,” he said, echoing Milloy’s thoughts. “I hope to take into consideration the environmental impacts of what I do along the way.”
SPENDING MOST of the summer on the bus has helped Wright feel like he’s a bit of an expert on bio-diesel engines, but he admits that he learned as much from the people they met than he’s taught them in return.
“People can find practical solutions in everyday situations to make better decisions for the environment,” he said.
Using vegetable oil to fuel engines may appeal to a small portion of the population, but Hanson hopes that will change in the near future.
“The American mindset is not at all conducive to embracing sustainable energy at all,” Hanson said. “Our responsibility to make sure we do what we can to spread this message.”
The only way change can happen is through small steps, Hanson advises.
“Convincing someone to change their lifestyle is a daunting task, but getting them to change one or two tasks is very attainable,” he said.
Ross Virginia, a professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth, said he joined the students for the first leg of the tour and he’s become very proud of their dedication to renewable energy.
“We’re all concerned about what has to be done to help the environment but so much is accomplished by just talking with people about their options,” Virginia said. “People have been relating to the intensity and very effective message the kids are sending. They’ve done so much more than I thought they’d be able to accomplish.”