Apr 27, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Clean energy patenting is outpacing fossil fuels, but experts warn it's not enough

Reproduced from European Patent Office, International Energy Agency; Chart: Axios Visuals
Reproduced from European Patent Office, International Energy Agency; Chart: Axios Visuals

A new report from the International Energy Agency and the European Patent Office tracks the upward march of clean energy patent applications worldwide — and warns that it's not enough.

Driving the news: The report shows a resumption in clean energy patenting after a slump in recent years, and that innovation in these technologies is outpacing fossil fuel-related patenting.

Why it matters: While aggressively deploying existing tech is a huge part of the climate puzzle, the report says that significant evolution and invention is also needed.

  • "Technologies still currently at the prototype or demonstration phase represent around 35% of the cumulative CO2 emissions reductions needed to shift to a sustainable path consistent with net-zero emissions by 2070," the report states.
  • The IEA and EPO note that recent annual growth in low-carbon patenting is slower than it was earlier in the century before the slump.

What they're saying: “This report is a clear call for action to step up research and innovation into new low-carbon energy technologies, and improve existing ones," EPO President António Campinos said in a statement.

How it works: The report tracks hundred of thousands of low-carbon energy patent applications filed since 2000 and groups them into three buckets:

  • Low-carbon energy supply, like wind and solar.
  • Tech that boosts efficiency and switching to clean energy in sectors like transport, industry and buildings.
  • A cross-cutting bucket of "enabling" tech like batteries, hydrogen, smart grids, and a lot more.

The big picture: That middle bucket accounts for about 60% of low-carbon energy patents over the last five years.

  • Patents on the supply side have been on a downward trend over the last decade.
  • The groups said in a summary that this reflects the maturity of some sectors, like solar PV, which has "not yet been followed by a new wave of improvements to other renewables" like ocean energy.
  • Patenting in enabling tech, which includes batteries for EVs, has seen the highest growth in recent years.

The intrigue: Electric vehicle and battery-related inventions have been a major driver of patenting growth over the last decade.

  • That's visible in the report's breakdowns by company.
  • Among the top 15 applicants from 2000-2019, six are automakers — Toyota, GM, Ford, Honda, VW, and Hyundai — and six are battery suppliers.

Of note: The analysis looks at patent applications filed in multiple locations, thus covering "inventions deemed important enough by the inventor to seek protection internationally."

  • This is a "relatively small percentage of applications" and can be "used as a sound basis for comparing international innovation activities," IEA and EPO said.
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