The majority of the patents granted since 2009 have been in solar energy. Toyota emerged as the top patent holder with its fuel cell research.
Renewable energy had a big year in 2016. Prices of solar power dropped, making it cheaper than coal in parts of the world and key corporates backed alternative energy in various ways. Tesla acquired SolarCity for $2B; and in Q3’16 General Motors pledged to “generate or source all electrical power for its 350 operations in 59 countries with 100% renewable energy — such as wind, sun and landfill gas — by 2050.” Google announced it would switch to 100% renewable energy in 2017.
To study the growing interest in this space and the technological advancements in clean energy, we analyzed over 50,000 US renewable energy patent grants and applications between 2009 and 1/31/2017.
This report contains the following sections:
- Annual renewable energy patents granted
- Patents granted by type of renewable energy
- Top patent holders
- Top patent holders by type of renewable energy
- Trends in renewable energy patent application activity
The results are based on keyword searches of the CB Insights database for various renewable energy technologies, including solar, wind energy, geothermal energy, hydroelectricity, fuel cells, bio-energy and tidal/wave energy. Toyota emerged as the top patent holder, with 800 patents under its belt, mainly in fuel cell technology. Although most of the top patent holders are big corporations, Taiwan-based Industrial Technology Research Institute made it to the list of top 22 patent holders. Overall, solar patents accounted for 42% of all renewable energy patents granted during the time period.
Note: Dates in first section of analysis are based on the date when the US patent office approves an application for patent, i.e. a grant. Dates in latter section of analysis are based on the date when patent applications were submitted by individuals or companies.
Annual renewable energy patents granted
More than 26,000 patents related to renewable energy have been approved by the United States Patent Office or USPTO since 2009.
The year 2014 saw the highest number of renewable energy patents granted, at 4,268. The numbers dropped slightly in 2015 and 2016 to 4,063 and 3,910, respectively. So far in 2017, 334 patents have been approved, including Google’s technology for an antenna with a solar panel, an LG Innotek solar cell apparatus, a General Electric system for reducing vibration in a wind turbine, a wind turbine blade design by Siemens Energy, and a Toyota technique for increasing the production of plant biomass.
Patents by type of energy: Solar leads the way
Solar patents have dominated the total share of renewable energy patents since 2012. Solar technology accounted for 42% of total patents granted. Fuel cell and wind energy accounted for 29% and 15% of patent share, respectively.
This is in line with investor interest in private solar companies. Equity deals to solar startups are higher than deals to wind and other types of renewable energy companies.
The number of solar patents granted dropped in 2015 to 1,942 from 2,002 the previous year. The numbers dropped further to 1,906 in 2016. Bio-energy patents, meanwhile, reached an 8-year high in 2016 at 524. January 2017 saw an additional 37 bio-energy grants, including patents granted to corporations like Mitsubishi, Toyota, and Sony.
Geothermal energy patents have gradually increased, from less than 10 in 2009 to over 40 in 2015 and 2016. To name a few, a Microsoft patent explores geothermal cooling for its data center, while Fuji Electric and Chevron USA received 2 patents each last year that utilize geothermal energy.
The “Other” category includes hybrid energy systems that utilize more than one energy source.
Top patent holders: Toyota, GM push for fuel cells
Toyota was the top patent holder in renewable energy technologies, with 800 patent grants to its name since 2009. General Motors ranked second, followed closely by General Electric and Samsung.
Almost all of Toyota’s patents, around 95%, have been in fuel cell technologies. Fuel cells convert chemical energy to electricity, and can be considered renewable energy assuming the fuel (hydrogen) is derived from a renewable source. In 2015, the auto giant opened more than 5,000 of its global fuel cell patents for royalty-free licensing by other auto makers and fuel cell-focused companies. The rationale was to help speed the development of a fuel cell ecosystem:
“The first generation hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, launched between 2015 and 2020, will be critical, requiring a concerted effort and unconventional collaboration between automakers, government regulators, academia and energy providers. By eliminating traditional corporate boundaries, we can speed the development of new technologies and move into the future of mobility more quickly, effectively and economically.” – Bob Carter, SVP of automotive operations at Toyota Motor Sales
General Motors followed a similar trend, with 761 fuel cell patents.
General Electric, on the other hand, has placed its bets on wind energy, with over 626 patents in this category out of 781 patents granted so far.
Here’s a breakdown of the patents of the top 4 renewable energy patent holders on our list based on the type of renewable energy:
Top patent holders by type of renewable energy
The chart below shows the top patent holders in solar, wind, fuel cell, and bio energy.
- Solar: LG emerged as the top patent holder in solar with 298 patents. This includes patents owned by all LG units/subsidiaries like LG Electronics, LG Chem, and LG Innotek. Solar manufacturer SunPower ranked second with 273 patents. IBM ranked third with over 200 solar patents, including a 2017 grant on solar cell technology. Sanyo Electric, which ranks seventh in solar patents, was acquired by Panasonic in 2009.
- Wind: With 626 patents, GE was the top patent holder in wind technologies. Energy corporation Vestas and electronics giant Siemens ranked second and third, respectively. Siemens recently inaugurated a factory for manufacturing wind turbine blades in the UK, and has already been granted nearly 10 wind energy patents in 2017, including a method of operating a wind park.
- Fuel cell: GM and Toyota led the way in fuel cell patents with more than 750 patents each total. Honda and Samsung hold over 500 patents each. GM and Honda announced a joint venture this month to work on advanced hydrogen fuel cell systems.
- Bio-energy: Massachusetts-based biotech company Xyleco holds the most bio-energy patents, followed by oil and gas giant Shell. KiOR— a joint venture between Khosla Ventures and BIOeCON— holds 59 patents, but the company declared bankruptcy in 2015. UOP Russell, which manufactures gas processing equipment for the oil and gas industry, was acquired in 2016 by Honeywell. Most of its recent grants focus on biomass-derived pyrolysis oil (a type of synthetic fuel).
Trends in renewable energy patent application activity
We tracked the total number of renewable energy patent applications submitted to the USPTO since 2009. This includes applications that have been granted, rejected, or are yet to be reviewed.
Note: The patent filing process involves a significant time-lag before the publishing of patent applications. This delay can range from several months to over two years, meaning that records prior to 2013 are likely complete at the time of analysis, but there may be applications from 2014 on that have yet to be published.
Of the 1,351 patent applications submitted in 2016 that we’ve obtained so far, Panasonic applied for 53 patents, followed by Toyota (33), LG (32), and Xyleco (29). While the Toyota and Xyleco applications focused on fuel cell and bio-energy respectively, Panasonic and LG focused on solar technologies. IBM applied for 22 solar patents, focusing on solar cell/PV technologies in 2016. Laptop manufacturer Toshiba has filed for 12 solar patents, including patents for a photo-electrochemical reaction device and a solar heat collecting system. Oil and gas giant Shell applied for 12 new patents in bio-energy. The charts will be updated as more patents are published online by the USPTO.
The chart below shows the application share by type of energy.
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