Historical Trajectories and Corporate Competences in Wind Energy

by Geoffrey Jones & Loubna Bouamane

Overview — Analyzing developments in the wind turbine business over more than a century, Geoffrey Jones and Loubna Bouamane argue that public policy has been a key variable in the spread of wind energy since the 1980s, but that public policy was more of a problem than a facilitator in the earlier history of the industry. Geography has mattered to some extent, also: Both in the United States and Denmark, the existence of rural areas not supplied by electricity provided the initial stimulus to entrepreneurs and innovators. Building firm-level capabilities has been essential in an industry which has been both technically difficult and vulnerable to policy shifts. Key concepts include:

  • Firms from Denmark have been unusually prominent throughout the history of the wind energy business. The basis of the competitive Danish industry was laid without support or even encouragement from its government.
  • US-based firms have also been regularly found among the leading wind energy companies. But their relative importance varied considerably over time, has rarely reflected the overall importance of the U.S. market, and has involved a changing cast of actual firms.
  • German and Spanish, and more recently Indian and Chinese firms, have emerged to become amongst the largest turbine manufacturers in the industry.
  • The most striking change over the last decade has been in the competitive landscape. Engineering powerhouses, such as GE and Siemens, and wholly or partly state-owned Chinese firms with low-cost bases, are now prominent actors in this industry.

Author Abstract

This working paper surveys the business history of the global wind energy turbine industry between the late nineteenth century and the present day. It examines the long-term prominence of firms headquartered in Denmark, the more fluctuating role of US-based firms, and the more recent growth of German, Spanish, Indian and Chinese firms. While natural resource endowment in wind has not been very significant in explaining the country of origin of leading firms, the existence of rural areas not supplied by grid electricity was an important motivation for early movers in both the US and Denmark. Public policy was the problem rather than the opportunity for wind entrepreneurs before 1980, but beginning with feed-in tariffs and other policy measures taken in California, policy mattered a great deal. However, Danish firms, building on inherited technological capabilities and benefitting from a small-scale and decentralized industrial structure, benefitted more from Californian public policies. The more recent growth of German, Spanish and Chinese firms reflected both home country subsidies for wind energy and strong local content policies, whilst successful firms pursued successful strategies to acquire technologies and develop their own capabilities.

Paper Information