Regardless of your opinion on climate change and it’s causes, it is hard to ignore the unprecedented attention that clean energy continues to receive. The end of last year saw the United Nations hold the Paris Climate Change Conference where 20 nations, including the United States, vowed to double their investment into research and development of clean energy technologies by 2020. These foreign entities will see their efforts redoubled by private sector players like Bill Gates, who reportedly has agreed to invest billions into a clean energy R&D project known as the Breakthrough Energy Coalition. The public/private initiative aims to slow the pace of climate change and limit the annual rise in global temperatures to 2°C.
These new pledges for funding technological advances in the fight against climate change come at a time when patenting activities are already booming within the sector. The Clean Energy Patent Growth Index (CEPGI), which provides a measure of the activity in the U.S. patent sector for clean energy technologies, reports that five of the past six quarters have seen the greatest level of patenting activity on record for clean energies. Patent grants per year have quadrupled in the years between 2008 and 2015, from just under 1,000 U.S. patents up to nearly 4,000 U.S. patents. As BloombergBusiness reports, most recently issued patents have related to solar energy generation but there is also significant R&D invested into electric vehicles, fuel cells and wind power generation.
The increased patenting activity in the clean energy field, and the importance of addressing climate change, has led to the development of patent activity monitoring services like the International Renewable Energy Agency’s (IRENA’s) International Standards and Patents in Renewable Energy (INSPIRE). The database, which monitors more than 2 million clean energy patents as well as 400 standards in renewable clean energy technology, is intended to encourage collaboration among tech developers in the field by helping to identify prospective research partners.
Despite America’s position as a leader in the development of clean energy technologies, it’s not the nation with the most patents filed in the sector. As of 2009, more than half of all clean energy patents were filed with Japan’s patent office, according to an INSPIRE report; the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office took second place with 20 percent of the clean energy patent market. However, the U.S. has been increasing its pace of innovation in recent years. In 2014, data from CEPGI indicates that America led all countries that year in terms of the number of clean energy patents filed. It was also pretty telling that an American company, automaker General Motors Company (NYSE:GM), was able to stave off the top Japanese clean energy company, fellow automaker Toyota Motor Corporation (NYSE:TM), as the top filer of clean energy patents in 2014.
American cities are also taking the lead in implementing renewable energy sources and other clean energy initiatives. Near the end of November, officials from the city of Las Vegas announced a partnership with power supplier NV Energy that would generate power for the city’s public and retail needs entirely from renewable energy sources. Most of this renewable energy will come from solar energy plants, such as a 100-megawatt solar plant located in Boulder City, NV.
A wider array of America’s federal agencies are involved in the pursuit of advanced renewable energy patents than one might first expect. For example, the U.S. Army announced this summer that it filed a patent for a breakthrough in photovoltaic solar cells. Army researchers found a way to create a layered semiconductor incorporating silver and gold to create a solar cell material with a thickness of only a few hundred nanometers. The resulting photovoltaic cell is about 1,000 times thinner than conventional PV cells, according to Army reports.
With an increase in the number of patents being issued for clean energy technologies, it’s not surprising to see predictions of increased patent litigation in the sector. Patent infringement cases in the clean energy sector have already involved many of the industry’s top companies, including Westinghouse Solar, Zep Solar, DuPont (NYSE:DD) and SunEdison (NYSE:SUNE). Of course, with increased litigation, some have raised concerns that non-practicing entities (NPEs) may become more involved in the industry. A recent Bloomberg blog post, however, points out some characteristics of the clean energy patent sector that could decrease the likelihood of such activity. Although patent issuances have exploded in that field, the market isn’t nearly as crowded as smartphones and other industries where a much higher number of patents have issued, making those sectors more visible to NPEs. Also, many clean energy inventions are based in hardware and not software, which is where NPEs have typically focused their attention.
The clean energy sector is diverse and runs the gamut from electric vehicles to various forms of renewable energy, from hydroelectric to nuclear power generation. Many international organizations, including the Global Environment Facility, continue to invest hundreds of millions of dollars every year into energy efficiency and clean energy technological development. With the renewed calls for both private and public investment into clean energy R&D in the wake of the Paris climate change conference, it’s clear to see that intellectual property owners who can successfully navigate the patent market could make significant financial gains.