Patents and Renewable Energy

Since the Industrial Revolution we have burned increasing amounts of fossil fuels for energy. Coal, oil and gas have been the earth’s natural resources that the global population now relies upon to fuel industry and to power our homes, but times are changing.

Global climate change, the increasing rise in oil and gas prices worldwide, increased global demand for electricity, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the conflict in Ukraine have all heightened the need for governments to re-think their energy strategy, moving away from fossil fuels and looking to renewable energy sources as the answer to our energy needs whilst also reducing our carbon footprint.

The UK government has set a net zero target for greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Having traditionally relied on indigenous supplies of oil, coal and natural gas to fuel the nation the UK is increasingly looking to “clean energy” to play a more prominent role in energy production.

Whilst clean energy technologies are now coming to the fore, some have their roots in a golden age of innovation, the late 1800s.

Wind power

The first wind turbine was created by Scottish inventor Prof James Blyth in 1887 and since then wind turbine technology has literally propelled itself into the forefront of renewable energy power.

The Office for National Statistics (June 2021) reports that in the UK electricity generated from wind power has increased by over 700% from 2009 to 2020 and wind energy accounted for almost a quarter of the UK’s total electricity generation in 2020.

Wind power features prominently in the UK Government’s 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution and there are plans to quadruple the UK’s offshore wind capacity by 2030. Currently the UK boasts the world’s largest offshore wind farm off the Yorkshire coast.

Research from the climate think tank Ember showed that wind and solar power generated 10% of global electricity in 2021, with 50 countries sourcing over a tenth of their power from wind and solar.

Solar technology

19th Century inventor Augustin Mouchot developed the earliest solar powered engines that converted solar energy into mechanical steam power, but it was with the creation of the first solar cells in 1883 that New York inventor Charles Fritts pioneered the development of photovoltaic solar panels in America.

Now solar farms can be found across the world occupying vast swathes of land full of solar arrays harnessing the sun’s energy to produce electricity: the new solar ‘crop’ for a greener environment.

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) photovoltaic cells comprise one of the fastest-growing renewable resources to generate electricity.

Geothermal Power

The use of geothermal energy for cooking by Native Americans dates back as much as 10,000 years and in America in the 1890s geothermal power was harnessed for heating homes in the city of Boise, Idaho. That district heating system is still in operation today.

Every country has its own unique geographical conditions, natural resources and economic position that determine its choice of energy supply.

There are corners of the globe where geography naturally dictates a country’s primary fuel supply. Reykjavík in Iceland has perhaps the most well-known geothermal district heating system in the world. As far back as the 1930s the country’s geothermal waters were utilised for space heating, and today this volcano dominated island derives as much as 66% of its energy from geothermal sources.

As with all fields of technology scientists continually seek to learn more about the environment and the resources around them. For example, there is currently an ongoing study of the hydrothermal systems throughout Iceland, the Iceland Deep Drilling Project (IDDP) which seeks to improve the economic viability of harnessing the geothermal fields to produce power.

The future?

A joint study published in April 2021 by the European Patent Office and the International Energy Agency, Patents and the energy transition: global trends in clean energy technology innovation reports a rise in the number of international patents in low-carbon energy technologies over the last 20 years.

The report measures the trends in terms of international patent families (IPFs) and because patent applications are often filed months or years before products are available commercially, these patent applications are frequently seen as an indicator of technological trends in the future.

Since 2000 there have been more than 420,000 IPFs filed across the globe in the low-carbon energy sector with “enabling” technologies (such as batteries, hydrogen and carbon capture) accounting for 60% of all low-carbon energy inventions in the last 5 years.

Europe has led the way in terms of the number of patent filings of low-carbon inventions from 2010 – 2019 (28%), followed by Japan (25%) and then the US (20%).

The report highlights Japan’s strength in the field of electric vehicle technology, batteries and hydrogen, with South Korea leading in solar PV technology and energy efficiency in industrial production and China specialising in ICT. The study shows that the US is an industry leader in aviation technology, biofuels and carbon capture.

To read the full study click here