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Global Patenting Trends in RET​

How many patents exist in the renewable energy field depends on how we define renewable energy. While the definition is evident for production of solar PV, it is less clear in the area of information technology (e.g., smart grids) or biotechnology (e.g., genetically engineered crops). Estimates suggest that there are around 215,000 existing patents with a main focus on renewable energy applications (Copenhagen Economics, 2009).

Patenting activities in RET have increased significantly since the 1990s. WIPO has conducted a patent landscape analysis on alternative energy technologies (solar, wind, bioenergy, hydropower, geothermal, wave and tidal power, as well as hydrogen and fuel cell, carbon capture and storage, and waste-to-energy) to examine the developments in the number and character of patent applications at several patent offices (the USPTO, JPO, EPO, KIPO, and China’s SIPO) and international applications under the PCT.

The WIPO study looked into 77,813 filed patents relevant to renewable energy at the different patent offices. Of these 55% were filed in Japan, followed by the US and Europe (Figure 2). However, the dominance of Japan is not reflected in the market shares of equipment supply, which again indicates the limited value of patents as a proxy for commercial success.

The analysis showed that the annual rate of patent filings increased by 10% starting in the 1990s and by 25% from 2001 to 2005. Based on the patent activities seen in different patent offices, Europe and Japan showed a steady increase in patent applications, while patent applications increased exponentially in the US, the Republic of Korea (South Korea), and under the PCT system (WIPO, 2011).

​Another patent mapping study was conducted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the EPO and the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD) and presented in the report Patents and clean energy: Bridging the gap between evidence and policy. (Report available at:EPO - Patents and clean energy​ ).

The study used PATSTAT, a worldwide patent statistics database managed by EPO, to look at six main RETs – solar energy, wind energy, ocean energy, geothermal energy, hydropower and bioenergy.

It found that the leading countries in terms of patent activities in these technologies were Japan, the US, Germany, South Korea, the UK and France. These countries together accounted for almost 80% of all patent applications in the RETs reviewed. At the same time, some emerging economies were showing specialisation.

China, for example, showed notable patent activity in the area of solar PV (UNEP, EPO and ICTSD, 2010).​​
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