Relevant outsiders creating a path to exporting domestically produced wind turbines: the case of N Project

N Project is a different case in that the project encouraged outsiders to break the current track of wind power generation by imported wind turbines by creating a new path to exporting domestically produced wind turbines. N Project was initiated by 11 toy component makers in Fukui Prefecture who were primarily subcontractors of major toy companies that manufactured jungle gyms and slides. The project started in 1994 through an association aimed at the collaborative work of small-scale companies willing to produce something new outside of the toy-production business. While initially they had been unable to find a suitable new product, a breakthrough came at a time when “Mr. N,” a member of the project and a subcontractor for toy makers, talked with “Mr. M,” a painter/sculp- tor who had once made a metal sculpture with the technical assistance of Mr. N. The prefecture was and is known as a stronghold of nuclear power stations, as 15 of them are sited in the prefecture.22 To change this image, Mr. M proposed a small wind turbine as a symbolic counter and also because, at that time, there was a lack of serious effort to produce small-scale wind turbines in Japan, and he regarded this situation as a niche.

This idea was welcomed by the members of N Project and R&D started in 1995, followed by Mr. M reaching out to contact wind turbine experts. What they tried to produce was a small-scale wind turbine generator that was also able to serve as a symbolic monument for natural energy sources. One of the most technically critical, “reverse-salient” (Hughes 1983) questions for this small-scale wind turbine was how it would operate during very slight wind (2 meters/second). During a discussion about N Project between Mr. N and one of his golf mates, who was a magnet maker, the idea was posed to use magnets to help rotate the wind turbine during very slight wind conditions. The idea was successful and N Project completed its first small-scale wind turbine within five years of beginning R&D.

Thus, there were two relevant outsiders in the R&D stage of N Project: Mr. M, who conceived the original project idea, and Mr. N, who found a solution to the reverse salient technical question in materializing the small-scale wind turbine. Neither of them had any connection with MITI, nor was there direct top-down control of MITI. In addition, there were no wind turbine development, design, or production specialists working on the project.

A relevant outsider in the post-R&D stage was one of Mr. M’s friends, “Mr. S,” who was then working at a university in the prefecture and specialized in African studies. Based on his knowledge about Africa, he became responsible for the project’s strategy for selling the small-scale wind turbines on that continent, based on Mr. M’s idea for this type of export. Mr. S’s commitment to the project coincided with one governmental agency’s decision to promote the introduction of wind turbines within universities and hospitals in Africa. Such government-aided projects for developing countries had often failed in the past, mainly because people in the recipient countries cannot afford to keep operating technologies that were transferred from developed countries. When wind turbines needed maintenance, for example, the local people were unable to repair them due to the expense. Mr. S had obtained his Ph.D. in African studies from a national university, which was then carrying out a joint national project with the governmental agency in question; as such, he proposed the use of small-scale wind turbines produced by N Project for the joint national project to export wind turbines to Africa.

His strategy emphasized the image of an energy-saving society and an African community that had no formal monetary system.23 Anti-nuclear sentiment was also one of the motives for his strategy. The proposal by Mr. S was accepted by the joint national project and N Project was able to export small-scale wind turbines to Africa that had been developed by the project. In 2001, wind turbines were installed by the project in two sites there. The relevant outsiders in this case are listed below (see Table 6.6).24

Success of small makers’ associations in technological development and the export of their products are considered exceptional cases rather than the norm. In addition to the relevant outsiders’ roles mentioned above, N Project’s success might also be due to a complementary factor. That is to say, the project was not necessarily oriented toward pay-off maximization; for example, the cost of the project exceeded the government subsidy, requiring additional private

Table 6.6 Relevant Outsiders in Creating a New Path to Exporting Domestically Produced Wind Turbines to Africa

Relevant

outsiders

Motives

Expertise in wind turbines

Purpose

Mr. N

Self-sustaining

business

None

Increased spread through mass production

Mr. M

Self-sustaining business, anti-nuclear

None

Symbolic purposes, social reform

Mr. S

Energy-saving, antinuclear

None

Social reform

investment by the active members of the project, who were willing to engage in a self-sustaining economy. N Project is facing the dilemma of whether or not to proceed with mass-production of small-scale wind turbines to promote further market expansion, or to continue to produce the turbines for small communities.25 In either situation, the manufacturing of small-scale products based on local industries coupled with loose regional networks of relevant outsiders created a unique path that led to the domestic production of wind turbines and their export to developing countries.

 
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