Big Promises and Fragile Coalitions the Political Economy of the Early Photovoltaic Industry

Thursday, 2 July 2015: 2:15 PM-3:45 PM
TW2.1.03 (Tower Two)
Timur Ergen, Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, Cologne, Germany; Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, Cologne, Germany
The paper traces the rise and decline of solar cell commercialization efforts during the 1970s and early 1980s in the United States. It shows how technology policies for photovoltaic appliances gained and lost support in a time of increasing uncertainty about future resource supplies and the future direction of economic, political and societal development. Contrary to conventional explanations of the long history of failures to commercialize renewable energy technologies that emphasize barriers to entry and path dependencies around established energy technologies, the paper explains the rise and decline of early solar cell policies with internal sectoral dynamics. Critical to public perceptions of the intermediary success of the commercialization programs, to continuous investment by industry and to the maintenance of political support, it argues, was cohesion among political economic supporters.

The direct utilization of solar energy has a 150-year history of workable prototypes, excessive promises and failed realization. The permanent beta stage of the technology arguably was less due to missing beliefs or technological potentials, but to problems of organizing for continuous collective learning processes, for continuous investment and for keeping supporting coalitions stable over time. Basic varieties of current solar cell technologies were developed in the 1950s. With few exceptions they ended up in a complex of research institutions, small technology-oriented firms and Western satellite programs. It was not until the early 1970s that future energy supply systems became sufficiently politicized for that complex to attempt to push the technology towards economic maturity. In 1973, a loose coalition of activists, firms, state agency representatives and researchers developed plans for an unparalleled coordinated attempt to scale up production, develop markets and incrementally lower the cost of the technology. A broad range of promises for socioeconomic change motivated the resulting programs for photovoltaics commercialization. Cheap solar electricity, supporters pictured, would serve as a check on inflation and lessen the need for what contemporaries called the coming politics of austerity. In a time of international embargoes, skyrocketing fuel prices and anti-nuclear protests, affordable solar cells promised environmentally benign energy independence. A blossoming solar industry would create vast new business opportunities. And the abundance of cheap energy from small-scale generation devices would set society back on a path of competitive decentralization and societal renewal at the height of open discontent with the American post-war political economy. As soon as the envisioned commercialization programs were initiated, however, interests among supporters started to diverge, the support coalition incrementally fell apart and the endeavor as a whole became increasingly fragmented. Despite unprecedented financial and political support, firms resisted investing and refused to expand the production of widely understood technologies. Activists, congress, firms, government and research institutes, in turn, developed diverging agendas and goals. Eventually, none of the initial commercialization plans were lived up to and maintained and the programs devolved into a renewed fractured high-risk research effort. When the conservative reaction, the oil glut and the takeover movement of the 1980s eventually put an end to broad support for photovoltaics commercialization, a by and large gridlocked sector fell back into insignificance, while the initial developmental narrative came to be seen as an early-day pipe dream.

The paper contributes to research on social mobilization and the social construction of expectations on the one hand and to the research on technology policies on the other. The development of the early industry for solar cells illustrates repeated feedback between expectations and interests, support coalitions, policies and policy effects over time. In many ways the development of the 1970s’ solar cell industry resembles social movement-like processes of mobilization around shared interpretations of current social problems and possible future remedies. Imaginaries of an alternative energy future based on affordable solar cells became a common carrier for diverse groups’ societal reform interests. Support for solar cell commercialization emerged from a sociological patchwork of problem perceptions and expectations. For years, the expected effects of the commercialization programs bound together leftist activists, oil concerns, high-tech firms, environmentalist politicians and space administration officials—each with their own reasons for support and their own influences on the planning process. Interestingly, the fulfillment of the coalition’s initial plans to initiate a comprehensive public support program undermined the coalition’s cohesion, instead of keeping supporters on track, which in turn led to decreasing confidence in the technology’s promised potentials. The initiation of public support measures, I argue, meant both—the removal of the original motivation to join forces and the emergence of tangible conflicts of interest. With the passage of technology policies the collective problem for supporters shifted from crafting a common narrative to securing concessions from participating groups. Failures to keep different interest groups cooperating falsified intermediary predictions, weakened the credibility of the developmental narrative and revived uncertainties about the technology’s future potentials.