Energy Patents Increase

Study finds growing market for renewable-energy technology.

01 January 2014
Virginia Cleaveland

A new study from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) shows that a modest increase in research and development investment coupled with growing markets worldwide fueled a dramatic increase in the number of patents for renewable-energy technologies over the last decade.

“We were quite surprised,” says Jessika Trancik, an assistant professor at MIT and co-author of the report, “Determinants of the Pace of Global Innovation in Energy Technologies.”

Trancik, Luís Bettencourt of SFI, and Indiana University graduate student Jasleen Kaur created a database of energy-related patents in more than 100 countries between 1970 and 2009, roughly 73,000 patents overall. The increase was most dramatic in renewable-energy patents, mainly solar energy and wind. China is the leading nation, followed by Japan and the United States.

Between 2004 and 2009, the number of solar- and wind-energy patents worldwide grew 13% and 19% per year, respectively. The number for all energy-technology patents was 11.9%.

Overall, renewable-energy patents in the United States increased from fewer than 200 per year from 1975 to 2000 to more than 1000 annually by 2009. By comparison, there were about 300 fossil-fuel-related patents in 2009, up from about 100 a year in earlier decades.

Asia patent filings for renewable energy ‘taking off’

image of Green Photonics The authors also found dramatic growth over the last few years in the number of renewable-energy technology patents in China, which is now a close second to Japan for wind patents. China now files more energy patents per year than Europe and is growing much faster than any other nation. The country also files more patents related to coal technologies than any other nation.

“China’s really taking off,” Trancik says.

Japan is the leader in terms of total patents filed for all energy technologies except coal, hydroelectric, biofuels, and natural gas. Europe has shown a downturn in fossil fuel patents over the last decade, particularly in coal.

The authors conclude that the trends contradict a picture of energy-technology patents driven by public R&D investment and instead point to the opportunities in growing markets that drive an increase in both R&D funding and other forms of investment that generate innovative activity.

The research, published in October 2013 in the journal PLoS ONE, was supported by the US Army Research Office, the Los Alamos National Lab, the National Science Foundation, and the Solomon Buchsbaum Research Fund.

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