The development of alternative fuels to generate electricity for societies around the globe has been a major focus among technology innovators in recent years. By now, everyone is familiar with the doomsday predictions involved with carbon-based fossil fuels, how they’re quickly running out and how they’re causing great harm to our environment.
Deriving energy from the sun has been aggressively, albeit periodically, pursued since at least the 1970s when the U.S. suffered through several gas shortages. But over time gas prices decreased, the technology could not compete with cheap alternatives, so interest waned, although it never thoroughly disappeared. Once again as the environment and climate change has become more of a mainstream issue there is renewed interested in harvesting energy from the sun through the use of photovoltaic (PV) systems. Here at IPWatchdog, we’ve taken a look at some interesting solar energy innovations in the past, but just how close are we to seeing widespread implementation of this technology?
Statistics coming out of the U.S. Energy Information Administration show that solar energy generation has increased dramatically in the course of a few years. Solar collection should continue to grow to about 14 gigawatts by the end of this year, according to this Wall Street Journal article.
Still, this accounts for only 1 percent of total U.S. energy consumption, and the Energy Information Administration predicts that solar energy will only cover 4 percent of consumption by the year 2040. Short of a steep spike in energy costs, PV systems and other forms of solar energy collection need major reduction in prices all across the board in order to become pervasive throughout the United States. Of course, one way to accomplish that is through innovation.
High Cost of Solar
As of 2012, the average price to install a solar powered unit on a piece of property was $4.45 per watt. Considering that some residential or commercial systems can generate as many as 5,000 watts, that’s a huge cost concern over more traditional electrical grid-based forms of receiving electricity.
Much of the cost of installing a solar energy system in any space is created by permit fees, installation costs, maintenance and more, not the costs actually incurred by running the system. These “soft” costs can total about 60 percent of the entire photovoltaic system bill, according to this press release from the U.S. Energy Department.
Reducing these costs is a big reason behind the creation of the Energy Department’s Rooftop Solar Challenge program. Announced in early November of this year, eight teams throughout the country will receive $16 million ($12 million coming from government sources) to create more standard regulations and systems for zoning, metering and connection processing in American communities.
These teams, comprised of representatives from public government, private industry and local utilities, have already worked on ways to cut wait times for permits by 40 percent, reducing associated fees by more than 10 percent overall. Now in its second round, the initiative is currently looking for ideas to create more efficient systems of financing and installing solar systems for residential and commercial properties.
There are some tough economic times ahead for proponents of solar energy. Currently, a federal tax credit cuts the total cost of installing solar energy systems by up to 30 percent. However, by 2016 that credit is set for a reduction to only 10 percent, putting more of the financial burden on the property owner. Prohibitive costs also make it difficult to implement the latest technology. For example, solar cells constructed from gallium arsenide can convert even more electrical energy from sunlight than silicone, but these systems can cost $2,000 per watt to install.
Still, there are some reasons to be hopeful for the future of solar energy implementation, even if it’s not the immediate future. In August 2013, an article published by the MIT Technology Review discusses a mineral material, perovskite, which can convert 15 percent of sunlight’s energy into electricity. Once fully developed, experts believe that perovskite solar cells can be produced for a cost ranging from 10 cents to 20 cents per watt. If this plays out as expected this innovation could be a game-changer.
Recent Patents and the Software Tie
We’re not seeing many recent patents or patent applications for widespread applications of solar cell technology for various structures. However, that’s probably to be expected. Although research and development is still continuing across the entire world, the technology is still too cost-prohibitive to be competitive, which means that there is less incentive to engage in the lengthy Research & Development efforts necessary to inch the technology forward. Notwisthstanding, we did find several interesting recent patent references that we wanted to share.
First up is U.S. Patent No. 8,588,830, titled Wireless Autonomous Solar-Powered Outdoor Lighting and Energy and Information Management Network. This patent protects an outdoor lighting array that includes solar power connection and control processes directly in the array. This system, developed by Inovus Solar of Boise, ID, could utilize either solar or wind energy and can collect and store energy throughout the day for important lighting fixtures, including streetlights.
But the ‘830 patent leads us to another thorny issue. The Background of the patent explains that the invention relates to “an array of outdoor lighting or other electric-powered devices, and network apparatus, hardware, and software for monitoring and managing said array, and, optionally, for analyzing information gathered from said array for dissemination to customers.” At the moment there are a lot of questions about the patent eligibility of software. Half of the Federal Circuit would rule all software patent claims patent ineligible despite the fact that software patents are referenced throughout the patent laws and clearly authorized and patent eligible subject matter. Moreover, the Obama Administration, which seems exceptionally cozy with Google, seems to have real disdain for software patents, which is the Google articulated position. Thus, it is hard to reconcile the Obama Administration positions that are in favor of alternative energy but which are also against the patent eligibility of software. So many alternative energy innovations today and in the future will incorporate software. Thus, if software were to be determined to be patent ineligible this would almost certainly send an unintended shock through the alternative energy world, not to mention the U.S. economy as a whole.
One particular recent patent application also caught our attention as we were researching for this article. Hitachi, Ltd., of Japan, has recently filed U.S. Patent Application No. 20130311121, entitled Method of Calculating Characteristics of Solar Cell and Solar Power Generation System. This system would provide a better method for assessing the power generation capability of solar cells, especially in mega solar or industrial generation sites utilizing thousands of cells. But once again, this innovation relies at least in part on software.
As the question of patent eligibility for software is addressed in the coming months and years it is essential that Judges and Members of Congress keep firmly in mind the extraordinary negative impact that would occur if software were determined to be patent ineligible.