The EPO’s report on low-carbon energy
In April 2021, the European patent office published their report on patents and the energy transition1. The report comes amidst both the Covid-19 pandemic and a concerted commitment from many companies and a large number of countries to significantly reduce, if not entirely eliminate, their greenhouse gas emissions.
This second joint report by the European patent office and the International Energy Agency analyses global trends in clean energy technology innovation by determining which fields in the low-carbon energy sector are seeing an increased number of patent filings. The authors of the report believe that it could be used to influence how both the public and private sectors manage their strategies for meeting the ambitious, but much needed, target of zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 by identifying key trends and opportunities for value creation.
As opposed to counting every individual patent filing, the report counted international patent families. Each such international patent family covers a single invention and includes patent applications filed and published at several offices, thereby avoiding double counting of inventions which many have been filed at a number of patent offices around the world. The European patent office determined that international patent families are “a reliable proxy for inventive activity because it provides a degree of control for patent quality by only representing inventions for which the inventor considered the value sufficient to seek protection internationally”.
The report is separated into a number of chapters and gives key information on areas such as the main technology trends, the profile of applicants in low-carbon energy technologies, and the geographical distribution of low-carbon energy innovation.
The report groups each of the 421,537 identified international patent families into 1 of the following three categories (with further sub categories also being recorded);
energy supply (i.e. wind, solar, nuclear),
enabling technologies (i.e. carbon capture, utilisation and storage, batteries and hydrogen and fuel cells), and
end-use technologies (i.e. buildings, production, transportation, mining and oil refining)
With the increase in variable energy sources and an increased use of electricity, enabling technologies and end-use technologies have become increasingly important. The report states that, “in 2019, end-use technologies represented more than 60% of low-carbon energy technology patenting”, and enabling technologies represented 34%. As our supply of and use of electricity becomes more varied, the variety and flexibility of enabling technologies and end-use technologies becomes more important.
The report goes on to break down the trends in each of these 3 categories. Regarding patents directed towards energy supply technologies, the report shows that solar energy applications are by far the most numerous with almost 3 times as many applications being directed to solar as to the next biggest area (wind). The report also shows a general decline in the overall number of applications in the energy supply technology sector from 2015-2019. The authors note that this is in line with the decline seen in the case of fossil fuel technologies, and prompts the authors to question whether innovation directed to the supply side of energy underwent a general decline in recent years.
In the end-use technologies sector, a large increase in the number of patents has been seen in each of the sub-categories (electric vehicles, other road vehicles, other transportation, chemical and oil, metal and mineral processing, other industry, building, and information and communications technology) between 2000 and 2019. Electric vehicles in particular have seen a dramatic increase in the number of applications filed since 2010.
The report states that up to a third of the international patent families categorised as enabling technologies (since 2010) could also be classified as supply technologies and/or end-use technologies. Innovation in this sector is therefore a powerful driver for innovation across the whole of the low-carbon energy sector. In this sector (including batteries, hydrogen and fuel cells, smart grids, carbon capture, utilisation and storage and other grid and storage technology), battery technologies represent a staggering 57% of the international patent families between 2010 and 2019. This is easy to imagine when we consider the ever-increasing use of batteries in our day-to-day lives.
In section 4 of the report, the authors consider the profile of the applicants of the international patent families. As with all research, different research projects are better suited to different institutional bodies. For example, universities and public research organisations can provide early stage research needed in the first development stages of new technologies. Once the ideas gain traction or prove viable, companies often become more involved. The report states that research institutions are “especially active in low-carbon energy supply technologies such as biofuels and fuel from waste, nuclear energy and some renewable energies” which highlights a potential lack of maturity of such technologies in comparison to, for example, wind and hydro energies.
Despite filings of international patent families from universities and public research organisations, the majority of international patent families in the low-carbon energy technology sector come from companies. The report shows that the top 15 applicants alone generated more than a third of all international patent families relating to low-carbon energy technology between 2000 and 2019. These 15 applicants largely comprise automotive companies and their suppliers (primarily battery suppliers), which also explains how international patent families directed to electric vehicles and batteries have seen such a dramatic increase over recent years. The top three applicants are Toyota Motor, Samsung and Panasonic.
The report also identifies the existence of regional clusters where innovative activities are geographically concentrated. For example, 18 clusters were identified when considering batteries, hydrogen and fuel cells, smart grids and carbon capture, utilisation and storage (all types of enabling technologies) and an impressive 14 of these clusters are in Japan and Korea.The report suggests that these regional clusters arise as a result of “economic efficiencies and knowledge spillovers that exist from co-location of similar industries and suppliers…also from formal relations that can exist between different organisations that are members of the cluster”.
In section 5, the authors consider the geographical distribution of low-carbon energy innovation, as determined by the locations of the inventors of the international patent families. The report focusses on the innovation seen in Europe, Japan, America, the Republic of Korea and the People’s Republic of China. Europe, Japan and America are by far the biggest geographical centres for international patent families in the low-carbon energy sector. However, since 2015, international patent families in each of these regions has stagnated. On the other hand, although the Republic of Korea and the People’s Republic of China generate a smaller percentage of international patent families in the low-carbon energy sector, they have both experienced a sustained increase in patent activity from 2000 to 2019.
If you have an invention relating to clean energy technology and would like to discuss your options for protecting your invention, please get in touch with Jim Miller, Joshua Green, Gail Taylor or your usual Kilburn & Strode advisor.