Segieda: Growing Up With Expensive Energy

Energy bills can be a monthly struggle for any family (AP file photo)

When I was growing up in Poland, the arrival of a gas bill was a major event and one that no one looked forward to.

Poland was already fairly developed and we weren’t poor by any standards. My parents had a tiny store and there was always plenty of food in our house.But even for us, the incomprehensibly high numbers on our gas bill were a dramatic blow to the household finances. My parents would gather around the table to discuss, first, how we were going to pay it, and second, how can we cut our usage to bring the charges down for the next month. And then my father would dig up an envelope from somewhere under the clothes with our “rainy day” savings and then there would be the inevitable arguments about who left the heating on for the whole night.

For a dreamy child and a rebellious teenager, the high cost of energy would be on the very bottom of the list of thing I cared about. But these high costs directly interfered with my life. We had a boiler that would only hold so much water and my mother would only allow it to be heated for couple of hours, when the electricity was cheaper. That meant when I wanted to wash my hair and go play with my friends, the water was at best lukewarm for few minutes and then cold. I knew that there was something very wrong with that.

What I didn’t know, was that me shivering in the shower, trying to wash off the shampoo with icy cold water, was somehow related to my country’s dependance on supply of gas from Russia’s state-run company Gazprom. Not only was Gazprom able to dictate prices many times higher that the market would, but the threat of cutting of the supply in the middle of a deadly cold winter was for them an powerful tool of political influence.

Many years later I found myself back in Poland, filming for FrackNation, the documentary about natural gas that I co-directed with Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney, and those frustrating memories came back. We were interviewing Sabina, an 85-year-old World War veteran who fought for independence in the uprising and survived communism only to find herself a victim to another type of tyranny – energy bills that were consuming more than half of her tiny pension.

Cheap, abundant energy might sound like a political talking point. Most Americans don’t think about it because they have cheap, abundant energy. But in many countries outside America it’s actually a feature of every-day life, that matters for young and for old. It’s a question of whether today you’ll be able to take that hot shower, whether the lights are going to be on for you to write that long essay due tomorrow, whether you will be sleeping comfortably or with your hat and gloves on.

I live in America now and dealing with energy bills doesn’t dominate my life anymore. I hope people in Poland and everywhere else in the world will be able to enjoy life free of worry about such necessities.

But I do worry that this life enhancing, low-cost energy might stop flowing into my home and that it will never get to others. My concerns come from my conversations with my peers in America. They have never known a life without the basic comforts, they seem to be taking them for granted. They don’t seem to understand that for the magic to happen when you flick that light switch, someone out there in the middle of nowhere is drilling a well to get the gas or oil out from the earth and someone else is laying down a pipe to bring that energy to you. That’s why it’s so easy for them to pick up “Ban Fracking Now” banners and march on the street, trying to stop the technology that brought about historically lowest prices of natural gas.

Perhaps I took enough cold showers in my life to keep me aware and thankful that, as I’m writing these words, my lights are on.

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