Patents for renewable energy technologies, led by innovations related to solar and wind, have risen drastically over the last decade, according to a new study from researchers at MIT and the Santa Fe Institute. The research shows that while patents in fossil fuel technologies grew modestly, and nuclear technology remained flat, between 2004 and 2009 the number of patents issued annually for solar energy increased by 13 percent per year, while those for wind energy increased 19 percent per year on average.
The study attributes investment in R&D and market demand for helping spur such growth, which for solar and wind exceeded patent growth rates for semiconductor and digital communications technologies.
Co-author Jessika Trancik, an engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told USA TODAY that this was good news because power sources that emit little or no carbon dioxide help mitigate climate change. The study states that climate change and energy security concerns are two of the main reasons interest in alternative energy technologies has been growing.
Trancik worked with Luís Bettencourt of SFI and graduate student Jasleen Kaur from Indiana University to create a database of roughly 73,000 energy-related patents issued in more than 100 countries between 1970 and 2009. They aggregated patents geographically and by technology.
The data show renewable energy patents filed in China, where the government has invested heavily in renewables, increasing rapidly over the last few years (this includes patents filed by foreign investors or companies).
In the U.S., renewable-energy patents increased from fewer than 200 per year in the period from 1975 to 2000 to more than 1,000 annually by 2009. In contrast, fossil-fuel-related patents rose to about 300 in 2009, up from 100 annually in earlier decades.
The researchers note that while market demand is playing a key role in innovation, it’s important not to undermine the impact of carefully tailored policies that support certain key innovations, for example the development of photovoltaics based on earth-abundant materials. The researchers argue that policy instruments are especially critical for technologies like this that are further away from cost-competitiveness.
Joel Makower, executive editor of GreenBiz.com, told USA TODAY that technologies will continue to improve in areas like solar panels in the same way they have for computers. He thinks eventually solar power technologies will be woven into textiles that we wear.