The Journal of Technology Transfer

, Volume 39, Issue 3, pp 487–501 | Cite as

Too little, too early: California’s transient advantage in the photovoltaic solar industry

  • Joel West


Throughout its brief history, California has established itself as a national or international leader in key industries—such as aerospace, computing and entertainment—through early mover pre-emption and strong clustering effects. California firms were the initial world leaders in producing photovoltaic (PV) solar cells and dominated the initial aerospace niche market. However, these early efforts failed to create a durable cluster, and when the U.S. market lost interest in renewable energy during the 1990s, California firms were largely surpassed by Japanese, German and Chinese producers that focused on the mass market of using PV to displace fossil fuels for electricity generation. This paper reviews the history of the California PV producers in three phases: aerospace niche markets of the 1950s and 1960s, a brief policy-induced effort at electricity generation in the 1980s, and a twenty first century resurgence fueled by Silicon Valley venture capital. It then discusses why the early entry of the California firms failed to translate to sustained advantage for the firms or the region.


Industry clusters Pioneer advantage Renewable energy Industry emergence 

JEL Classification

L22 L26 L52 O31 R30 



Thanks to Steve Casper, David McFeeley and two anonymous reviewers for helpful suggestions. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2011 Technology Transfer Conference.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Applied Life SciencesKGI—Keck Graduate InstituteClaremontUSA

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