Wind Power Industry Dynamic Shifts Through History

Being earth-friendly and creating jobs – those are the driving forces behind government support for renewable-energy development. And, of course, private companies are in it to make a profit. But a Harvard business professor studying what motivates entrepreneurs in green industries says both lines of thinking represent a big historical departure from their beginning days.

As told in a Harvard Business School (HBS) “Working Knowledge” article, Geoffrey Jones is peering back at the history of developments in organic food, sustainable agriculture, natural cosmetics, the built environment, ecotourism and waste recycling. In the first in a series of “discussion papers” he intends to produce, he and Harvard co-author Loubna Bouamane focus on wind energy. They’ve found a huge shift from the early days of wind, when “quirky eccentrics” were at the forefront of the industry, to today, when large-scale, government-backed efforts by huge corporations dominate the scene.

image via Jacobs Wind Electric

Jones says early wind-power developers weren’t driven by environmental concerns. Instead, he says, the industry’s founders were mostly “motivated by social concerns such as a desire to bring power to rural communities, increasing productivity of farmers, and raising living standards in developing areas.” He tells the story of the Jones brothers, Marcellus and Joe Jacobs, of eastern Montana, wind-turbine pioneers who simply wanted to bring electricity to places that didn’t have it. (The company they built lives on, by the way.)

Public policy, however, has “transformed wind industry into lucrative opportunity” and changed everything, Jones asserts. And that’s something he sees throughout the green industries he’s been studying. As the HBS article puts it: The pattern is to “move from pioneers driven more by social issues than economic gain who build the foundations of the industry but who are ultimately weeded out by the arrival of major players from other established industries, perhaps aided by government largesse.”

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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