AC/DC Controversy of the 1880s Applies to Natural Gas Today: Reflections After 2011 MIT Energy Conference


In the 1880s, Thomas Edison was locked in a battle with the legendary inventor Nikola Tesla and the entrepreneur George Westinghouse.

Edison argued that alternating current was “impractical” and highly dangerous. He supported the demonstration of electrocution of numerous animals to show the press and the public the danger of alternating current. He even went so far as to commission the development of the electric chair as part of the campaign. Alternating current was also dangerous economically to Edison and his new company, General Electric, as they were set up to exploit direct current and they lost one of their core advantages if the world went to alternating current. It was the classic innovator’s dilemma.

Well, after a fact-based analysis, alternating current was chosen to be piloted for Niagara Falls in the 1890s, and it clearly worked and all the hysteria was swept away. History has shown it to be clearly superior to direct current for most applications. Later in life, Edison came to regret that he had made this clearly off-base calculation, as well as his tactics.

Fast forward to today. Last week on the front page of The New York Times an article titled “Gas Wells Recycle Water, but Toxic Risks Persist” (the title is different in the online version) was yet another example of the publicity campaign to warn people about the dangers of natural gas production if we are not careful. Is this a balanced fact-based dialogue on how to address the problems of a probable energy source that can so dramatically help our country on each of the three fundamental criteria that we should be making energy decisions today—economic security, environmental, and economic? Or rather are we falling into the same mistake that happened in the 1880s with alternating vs. direct current?

Much like the safety considerations of alternating current which were real and needed to be addressed, the concerns with water are legitimate and must be addressed. It is essential to our country that these issues are discussed in a rational manner to avoid a situation where FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) rules as opposed to a constructive, fact-based dialogue.

From what I understand speaking with people who are much more expert than I in this, the challenges for dealing with water and natural gas fall into three categories:

1. Misperception: The fact that people continue to think that natural gas drilling affects the aquifer, is a misperception. Once the facts are understood, this is not a serious consideration.

2. Process: The purification and disposal of water from the fracking (hydraulic fracturing) process—which is where the real issues are—relate to whether the companies and governments are … Next Page »

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Bill Aulet is the managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He is also the author of “Disciplined Entrepreneurship: 24 Steps to a Successful Startup”, published by Wiley, which was released in August 2013. Follow @BillAulet

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