Clean energy – trends in patents covered by new EPO report

27 May, 2021

In April 2021 the European Patent Office published its report on “Patents and the energy transition” in a collaboration with the International Energy Agency (IEA). Here is European Patent Attorney, Sofia Willquist, summary and reflection. The report show the positive trends of the change that is touching all industries and all countries, but does also and maybe more importantly disclose the gaps in technology where more innovation is needed. Coming out of the pandemic that has been ripping through the entire world, this is a good opportunity for new businesses to emerge and to build a more sustainable world in the decades to come. 

According to the report there has now been a three-year growth in the area covering low-carbon energy (LCE) patents, together with a decline in patents relating to fossil fuel technologies. This is important, as we all know, because of the need to reach net-zero emissions of carbon dioxide.

The incentive for innovations within the LCE field is also interesting, because according to the report a shift has been made towards end-use sectors and applications that rely more on electrical power – including smart grids and hydrogen production, where the developing market of electrical vehicles (EVs) is a driving force. A growing trend is also clearly seen within carbon capturing innovations. 

The number one applicant at the EPO within LCE patents between 2000-2019 is – Toyota Motor, closely followed by two South Korean applicants Samsung and Panasonic. Bosch, Siemens and Volkswagen are among top 15 applicants and at the absolute top of technologies currently being patented is solar power technologies, but where a shift is seen towards organic PV cells as well as cost-cutting installations techniques. 

A sharp message regarding stagnation and technology gaps

The flow of innovations relating to hydrogen has remained stable, also due to substantial research funding, and in this respect Germany is providing nearly half of the patent applications in Europe, while in the field of EVs Japan is currently the world leader for both batteries and hydrogen.

However, the report also sends a sharp message that stagnation in the patenting activity is a concern for the clean energy transition (CET). There is a need to broaden the scope of innovations, and make room for new players and a stronger competition within the field of CET – and states that innovators should focus on standardisable technologies connected to consumer preferences, because this will lead to scalable manufacturing processes and cost effective products.

The report clearly shows the technology gaps that needs to filled and these include ocean power, bioenergy, CO2-storage solutions, buildings (efficient lighting, heating and home appliances), aviation and maritime applications, but also highlights that more innovation is still needed to put us on the CET track for net-zero CO2-emissions in 2050, in fields as batteries, hydrogen/fuel cells, smart grid, chemical and metal production, and also in computing and communication (ICT) – where also AI applications and big data will be very important. The report reveals that end-use technologies will pave the way for instance in power grids and energy storage, and in this sense the large companies will benefit from collaborations with smaller innovative companies to broaden the scope of energy innovation and to meet the consumer wishes.

Hydrogen innovations expected to grow

The enabling technologies i.e. those relating to deployment of clean energy to the end-users are of course closely related to the end-user applications, and in this field the growing number of patents relating to batteries is clearly reflected, even if the synergy between fuel cells and hydrogen and the range of end-user sectors is more clearly seen. The hydrogen innovations are expected to grow when, and if, the marked grows and continues to be an interesting business opportunity.  

The field of CO2-capturing techniques and those relating to preventing it from contributing to climate change only attributes to about 5 % of the patents in the LCE field – and is thus highly interesting filed for those seeking new business opportunities.

In this respect, public research is one of the key elements of LCE innovation, which is clear when looking at the numbers of patent applications filed by public research organisations in particular relating to more immature technologies, while the commercialised battery and smart-grid innovations mostly stem from the private sector. The main applicants, more than three quarters of all IPFs, come from Europe, Japan and the US, where Europe is strong in clean energy, specialising in almost all renewable energy technologies as well as having a strong governmental support for new innovations. Denmark is among the countries with a high share of LCE patents, while Sweden is the only country that did not register a drop in LCE patents between 2015-2019 and is also strong in ITC and geothermal applications. 

The report encourages international collaboration to increase the technological advances in the LCE field, between research centres and the private sector.  

In conclusion, the market, not the least the end-user market, for LCE technologies is growing rapidly. The need for continued innovation will lead to more collaboration and new business opportunities for both large and small companies. Innovation will also fill the gaps in LCE technology, which will be necessary for us to reach the goals as set out for instance in the Paris agreement.

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