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 using to make energy decisions today -- economic security, environmental soundness, and economic viability? Or rather are we falling into the same mistaken pattern that emerged in the 1880s with alternating vs. direct current?
Much like the safety considerations of alternating current, 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 have much more expertise than I do 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 enforcing the known best practices to avoid problems caused by faulty execution. Some of the problems today caused from natural gas mining are simply poor execution with regards to how to dispose of the wastewater, and this should be able to be easily fixed.
3. Real Problems: The produced water from the fracking process does have some troubling elements in it and while it seems like a solvable problem, this is what we should be focused on. We should also be focused on the amount of water that is required for this process and move to minimize this environmental cost. Clearly, water will be an increasingly precious commodity, and we do not simply want to be trading off water for energy.
In this debate, there are clearly parties who have entrenched interests (as there are in most every issue in the United States). In this case, there is the coal lobby and then there is the natural gas lobby. Unfortunately, in this case, these contributing conflicted parties are not balanced, as the power of the coal lobby dwarfs that of natural gas.
I very much look forward to a third-party honest broker being able to evaluate the situation and tell us what the reality is. A final MIT Study on natural gas is due out in April. The benefits of natural gas, specifically our ability to exploit the $4 trillion worth of newly discovered shale gas, are enormous and I would hate to see it get sidetracked for even a year with a FUD-based campaign like the one Edison ran against alternating current.
The stakes, as James Woolsey laid out so starkly in the energy conference panel of March 5, 2011, are much too high. Now is not the time to be frying animals to scare people. Now is the time to work on solutions.
(Watch video of the energy conference panel here: http://techtv.mit.edu/videos/11209-2011-mit-energy-conference-military-panel)
Bill Aulet is a Senior Lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, the Managing Director of the MIT Entrepreneurship Center and the Chairman of the MIT Clean Energy Prize.