How many patents exist in the field of renewable energy depends on how RE is defined. While the definition is evident for the production of solar PV, it is less clear in the area of information technology (e.g., smart grids) or biotechnology (e.g., genetically engineered crops). Estimates suggest that there are around 215,000 existing patents with a focus on renewable energy applications (Copenhagen Economics, 2009).
Patenting activities in RET have increased significantly since the 1990s. The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) has conducted a patent landscape analysis (PDF) on alternative energy technologies (solar, wind, bioenergy, hydropower, geothermal, wave and tidal power, as well as hydrogen and fuel cell, carbon capture and storage (CCS), and waste-to-energy) to examine developments in the number and character of patent applications at several patent offices (the USPTO, JPO, EPO, KIPO, and China’s SIPO) and via the Patent Cooperation Treaty.
The WIPO study investigated 77,813 filed patents relevant to renewable energy; of these, the majority were filed in Japan (55%), followed by the US (20%) and Europe (9%); (see Figure 2). However, Japan’s dominance is not reflected in its market share of equipment supply, which indicates the limited value of patents as a proxy for commercial success.
The analysis showed that the annual rate of patent filings increased by 10% starting in the 1990s and by 25% between 2001 and 2005. Based on the activity seen in different patent offices, Europe and Japan showed a steady increase in patent applications, while applications increased exponentially in the US, the Republic of Korea (South Korea), and under the PCT system.
Another patent mapping study was conducted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the EPO and the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD) and presented in the report, ‘Patents and clean energy: Bridging the gap between evidence and policy (PDF)'.
The study used PATSTAT, a worldwide patent statistics database managed by EPO, to examine six main RETs – solar energy, wind energy, ocean energy, geothermal energy, hydropower and bioenergy.
It found that the leading countries in terms of patent activities in these technologies were Japan, the US, Germany, South Korea, the UK and France. These countries together accounted for almost 80% of all patent applications in the RETs reviewed. At the same time, some emerging economies were showing signs of specialisation.
China, for example, showed notable patent activity in the area of solar PV.