Due in part to investments in research and development as well as market growth for related products; there has been a significant rise in the number of patents issued for renewable-energy technologies over the last decade. The increase was most dramatic in the solar energy and wind markets, while fossil-fuel technologies showed a more modest increase and the number of nuclear technology patents remained flat.
As part of the report, “Determinants of the Pace of Global Innovation in Energy Technologies,” researchers from MIT and the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) created a database of energy-related patents issued in more than 100 countries between 1970 and 2009. Rather than using the classifications assigned by patent offices, they compiled the lists using keyword searches of the patents themselves. A total of more than 73,000 energy-related technology patents were examined.
Between 2004 and 2009, the number of patents issued annually for solar energy increased by 13% per year and those for wind energy increased 19% per year, on average. Overall, the number of renewable energy-patents in the U.S. increased from fewer than 200 per year from 1975 to 2000, up to more than 1,000 per year by 2009. For comparison, there were roughly 300 fossil-fuel-related patents in 2009, up from about 100 a year in earlier decades.
Although there was a large increase in funding in the renewable energy fields following the oil shocks of the 1970’s and 1980’s, a steep drop-off followed. Jessika Trancik, an assistant professor of engineering systems at MIT and co-author of the report, stated that the effect of those investments is still visible in the increasing patent numbers. The cumulative effect of investment in research, by governments and industry, as well as the effect of growth in market for renewable-energy systems (benefitted by government subsidies, incentives, and tax breaks) has been the driver behind the reported numbers.
Research was supported by the Army Research Office, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the National Science Foundation, and the Solomon Buchsbaum Research Fund. The full report can be read here.