Clean Energy Patents: What’s Up, What’s Down and How Do the Trends Portend Markets?

May 10, 2019
A new analysis of clean energy patents reveals increases in electric vehicles and smart green home patents, upswings in blockchain, and decreases in solar and other energy harvesting filings. Based on data through 2018, the report also found patents for smart grids are decreasing.

A new analysis of clean energy patents reveals increases in electric vehicles and smart green home patents, upswings in blockchain, and decreases in solar and other energy harvesting filings.

Image by JrCasas/Shutterstock.com

The report, the Patenting Trends Study, based on data through 2018, also found patents decreasing for smart grids, a term that generally describes the incorporation of digital technologies into utility grids.

Patents are a leading indicator of investment and research and development in a particular space, said Tom Franklin, one of the authors of the report, which was prepared by law firm Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton and research firm GreyB Services.

“Patent signals show what tech people are thinking, where funding is happening,” he said. These trends can also be used to predict the development of new products and services, the focus of individual competitors in an industry and to predict the entry of new players in a market, said the report.

Generally, it’s difficult to glean trend information from patent filings because the filings are released 18 months after they’re filed. But the companies obtained a “proprietary dataset” of U.S. patenting activity that covered filings through 2018, said Franklin.

Why energy havesting is down

Energy harvesting patent decreases included solar, wind, bioenergy, fuel cells and nuclear power, Franklin said.

The energy harvesting patent drops are likely related to the end of the Obama-era American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 and also to lower natural gas prices, Franklin explained. The recovery act’s money was mostly distributed by 2011.

Even earlier — around 2008 — natural gas prices started to drop. However, the effects of the gas drops were masked by the money provided by the investment act.

“If you graphed the prices of natural gas, you would see it becoming substantially cheaper in 2008,” he said. “The government stimulus was initially masking the effect of the drop in prices. And then the stimulus money dropped off, and you saw the effect of lower gas prices.”

Meanwhile, solar and battery technology patents dropped because China started to dominate the market, said Franklin. Chinese companies acquired a number of US firms in the space.

The main American company that defied that trend was Tesla.

“Tesla stands in the face of that. We have one substantial car manufacturer, Tesla, and a few hundred in China,” he said.

The report only examined US clean energy patent filings, but the effect of Chinese companies buying up US battery technology firms was reflected by a drop in US patents in that field.

Smarts homes, electric vehicles and consumer influence

While patent filings for energy harvesting and battery technologies decreased, filings increased for smart homes and electric vehicles (EVs), driven in part by consumer interest. At the same time, patent filings in the smart grid space dropped — possibly because utilities are less likely than consumers to move quickly, said Kate Gaudry, also a report author.

“Who are the purchasers of EVs and smart green homes? They are mostly individuals who can react more quickly to trends,” she said. Meanwhile, utilities, the most likely entities to be involved in smart grid technologies, are cautious and move slowly, and are motivated by the need to earn investors a return. So there was less activity in smart grids.

Blockchain technologies are generally taking off. The number of blockchain patents in clean tech was small, but increasing.

“All blockchain is growing, but the industry in general is new,” said Gaudry.

Graph courtesy of Kilpatrick Townsend

Foreign clean energy patents on the rise

Overall, the study found that clean energy patent filings from foreign entities are on the rise and that entrenched incumbents dominate filings in the industries the study examined, said the report. Those incumbents includes big tech companies.

“Big tech companies love patents,” said Franklin. “A lot have started building windmills at their data centers to get power locally, and inexpensively.” But these companies sometimes file patents to “bully their way” into an industry, he said.

“The displacement risk big tech brings to industries is real,” he said. However, studying patent trends can warn industries that a big tech invasion is on the horizon.

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About the Author

Lisa Cohn | Contributing Editor

I focus on the West Coast and Midwest. Email me at [email protected]

I’ve been writing about energy for more than 20 years, and my stories have appeared in EnergyBiz, SNL Financial, Mother Earth News, Natural Home Magazine, Horizon Air Magazine, Oregon Business, Open Spaces, the Portland Tribune, The Oregonian, Renewable Energy World, Windpower Monthly and other publications. I’m also a former stringer for the Platts/McGraw-Hill energy publications. I began my career covering energy and environment for The Cape Cod Times, where Elisa Wood also was a reporter. I’ve received numerous writing awards from national, regional and local organizations, including Pacific Northwest Writers Association, Willamette Writers, Associated Oregon Industries, and the Voice of Youth Advocates. I first became interested in energy as a student at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, where I helped design and build a solar house.

Twitter: @LisaECohn

Linkedin: LisaEllenCohn

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