We like dull

Three recent articles make me think how dull and conservative good industrial policy in developing countries needs to be. And how China is proving the point.

The first piece reveals that only 106 plug-in electric cars were bought in the UK in the third quarter of the year. The second indicates that after biding its time, General Electric is making a move into the solar industry (FT sub needed) — but not into the poly-silicon technology that has dominated thus far, instead into the thin film approach that grew out of the US semiconductor business. The third article concerns GE’s third quarter results (FT sub needed), which were none too bad but which were not helped by falling wind turbine prices, a business where GE is already very active.

China has designs on all these green energy businesses. It also has large domestic firms in each sector which are screaming for subsidies. The government could have thrown its money at the most exciting technology — electric vehicles — or at the one where Chinese scientists lead the world — poly-silicon solar. But instead it chose to place its big bets on wind turbines, where the technological path is most established and the cost of green energy lowest, throwing billions of dollars at the construction of Chinese wind farms. It was the boring choice, but it looks like having been the right one — hands down.

As recent press shows, the market for electric vehicles remains tiny. If China had gotten too far ahead of the demand curve, the country could have wasted vast sums on e-vehicle technologies that fizzle. In the solar business, where private Chinese companies dominate global production of poly-silicon cells, there is a real risk that poly-silicon is not going to be the winning long-run technology.

The shape of the evolving wind turbine market, by contrast, is easier to see. It is largely a matter of making the same turbines bigger. In this context, China has created some of the world’s largest wind turbine producers in the space of a few years and there is little chance going forward that they will be ‘technologically disrupted’. They are competing first on price — hence the pressure mentioned by GE in its third quarter results — capturing market share, over-running the entire production value chain so as to ‘own’ the technology, and they will then start to compete on quality and service later.

Sensible industrial policy in a developing country involves plucking low hanging technological fruit. Then you bring cheap capital — human and financial —  to bear.

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