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Renewable futures and industrial legacies: Wind and solar sectors in China, Germany, and the United States

  • Jonas Nahm

This article develops an explanation for patterns of industrial specialization in emerging high-technology industries through a comparative analysis of wind and solar sectors in China, Germany, and the United States. Although governments have held similar industrial policy goals in the support of renewable energy industries, firms in all three economies have established distinct innovative capabilities in response to the policies of the state. This article shows that firms utilize both legacy institutions and engage in relational learning in global networks to carve out distinct niches in emerging industries. Based on an original dataset of more than 200 firm-level interviews, the article suggests that the rise of global value chains has widened the space for national diversity in industrial specialization. Firms no longer have to establish the full range of skills required to bring an idea from lab to market, but can specialize and collaborate with others. In this context, firms respond to industrial policy by incrementally building on existing industrial capabilities and by relying on familiar public resources and institutions, even in emerging industries. These findings point to the role of industrial legacies in shaping firms' positions in global value chains and show that firms are active agents in maintaining distinct industrial specializations and domestic institutions under conditions of globalization.

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Corresponding author
* Corresponding author: Jonas Nahm, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, Washington, DC, e-mail:
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This article is based on research supported by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, the U.S. Army Research Office, and the Minerva Research Initiative under contract/grant number W911NF-15-1-0116. Versions of this article were presented at the SASE London Global Value Chains workshop, the Brown University Watson Institute WIP, and the UC Irvine China Forum. I thank all the participants and three anonymous reviewers for their constructive feedback.

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