08 April 2011

The Rising Price of Gas in France

There's a proverb the French like to repeat this time of year:

En avril, ne te découvre pas d'un fil;
en mai, fais ce qu'il te plaît.

It means that with the arrival of warmer temperatures, usually in April, don't strip down to your tank-tops, tees and shorts just yet; you could still get hit by an unexpected cold snap. But in May you're pretty safe to wear whatever you like.

Except, we're already wearing shorts and tee-shirts, and it's only the beginning of April.

Yesterday evening's news broadcast showed images of people sunbathing on the beaches from the shores of Brittany to the côte d'azur, with record-breaking temperatures reaching 30°C (86°F) in some cities.

But the temperature isn't the only thing that's going up right now. At this gas station today, people in Lyon are paying 1.56 euros per liter for unleaded 95. That's about 15 cents per liter more than I payed three months ago. With the current exchange rate, that equals roughly $8.50 a gallon (US).

We hear lots of explanations for this continual upward creep (Libya...Middle-East unrest...global geo-politics...), but the fact remains: the average consumer is paying more at the pump, and if we choose not to change our habits which, admittedly, would require some radical adjustments to our everyday lifestyle, there isn't much of a solution.

Or is there?

A company called BFS (biofuel systems) thinks differently. At their pilot plant in Alicante, near Valencia, Spain, BFS has found a way to make petroleum using sunlight, CO2 and algae.

This news clip from France television's TF1 explains the basics behind "Blue Petroleum", the brainchild of French engineer and company founder, Bernard Stroïazzo-Mougin. It's in French, but here's a summary:

The process begins by first growing a culture of ultra-concentrated micro-algae in a "forest of tubes" using natural sunlight, water and C02 (from industrial emissions), in this case conveniently delivered via a pipeline from a neighboring cement factory.

Once the algae have multiplied and reached critical concentrated levels, it's filtered to remove water and the omega 3s. The resulting paste is then transformed into artificial petroleum through a process using high temperature and pressure.

The final product acts like a classic fossil fuel, minus the pollution.

Pierre Baros (associate director, BFS France) goes on to explain that with an area of 40 hectares (nearly 100 acres), the goal for this particular factory is to produce up to 230,000 barrels of "oil" per year all the while absorbing 450,000 tons of CO2.

Blue Petroleum isn't on the market yet, but already we can start to dream of a future, says the commentator, where each industrial complex that produces C02 is hooked up to its own factory of green tubes, thereby paving the way to solving our current pollution and energy worries.

In the meantime, what can you do now if you're fed up spending more of your hard-earned money for the rising prices of gasoline?

Leave the car at home and take a bus or ride the subway or tram. That's pretty easy in Lyon where you can get just about anywhere with public transportation.

This is a map of the of subway, bus and tram system in Lyon. One of the newest — and heavily anticipated — developments, inaugurated in August 2010, is the extension of the tram, called rhônexpress, which runs between the center of Lyon and St. Exupéry airport in under 30 minutes. A one-way ticket for an adult costs 13 euros; 11 euros for 12-25 year-olds. It's quick, easy and clean, and beats the hassle, and price, of a taxi.

Ride a bike. Paris has vélib' and Lyon has Vélo'V, an incredibly dense network of self-service stations where anyone can rent a bicycle, 24/7, for a minimal charge (the first 30 minutes are free).

Or do what I love best — walk. There's so much "city life" we miss out on, not to mention great cityscapes, when we're shooting through dark underground tunnels or whizzing by on a bike.

And with weather like we're having at the moment, we might just prove that old proverb wrong and be persuaded to take off those extra layers once and for all.

Petite note: the gas station photo at the top is © Alex Quici 2011

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