The shift to low-carbon energy (LCE) is a crucial part of addressing the challenges of the climate crisis. Unless emissions are reduced and greener energy is increased, the thresholds for temperature rises outlined in the Paris Climate Agreement could be breached.
That’s according to the European Patent Office (EPO) and the International Energy Agency (IEA), who have issued their second report into the growth of the technologies needed to support the transition to greener types of energy. Called Patents and the energy transition: Global trends in clean energy technology innovation, the report examines the link between patented developments and support for greener energy use. The shift to LCE can only be achieved through an acceleration in energy-sector innovation, the report’s authors state.
To measure the progress made to date, the EPO and IEA have trawled global patent databases to identify trends in innovation, counting instances when patents have been filed in more than one office, known as international patent families (IPFs). “This patent information provides early indications of technological developments that are bound to transform the economy and can thus reveal how innovation is driving the energy transition,” the report says.
Between 2010 and 2019, Europe was responsible for 28% of all IPFs, and has consistently been the world leader in LCE-related patents. According to the report, Europe ranks “first in most renewable energy fields”.
Japan and the US follow Europe’s lead with 25% and 20% (respectively) of global IPFs in the same nine-year period. For Japan, batteries and hydrogen are two areas of clear leadership in the LCE sector, both of which stand to benefit from the growth of electric vehicles and alternatives to fossil fuels. The US was singled out for making gains in the aviation industry and other low-carbon combustion developments.
While Korea (10% of all IPFs) and China (8% of all IPFs) are regarded by the report as “modest innovation centres in LCE technologies”, there have been noticeable increases in related patents in the past decade.
LCE innovation is bouncing back
There was a slowing down in the growth of IPFs for green energy between 2014 and 2016. But, the EPO/IEA report says, it is on the rise again. Furthermore, the increase in the number of LCE-related patents corresponds with declines in the use of fossil fuel.
Although that is a positive indicator, there is still a lot more that needs to be done. “The current growth rate of IPFs in LCE (3.3% since 2017) remains slower than that before 2013,” according to the report’s key findings.
From supply to end-use
Since 2017, most of the growth in LCE-related patents has been connected to batteries, hydrogen, smart grids, as well as carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS). All of which are important enablers of the energy transition.
Overall, 60% of all LCE patents across the past five years have been connected to fuel-switching and energy efficiency technologies. Perhaps surprisingly, IPFs relating to renewables like wind, solar, hydro or geothermal have been falling since 2012.
Electric vehicles are driving change
When it comes to new energy use and its use by consumers, it is the advent of the electric vehicle that is ushering in the most visible change. Whether it’s batteries, the vehicles themselves, or charging infrastructure, there has been a significant push in IPFs in this field.
“The number of IPFs in electric vehicles overtook other clean energy technologies for road vehicles as of 2011,” the report says.
By Sean Fleming