New Patents Show Solar Taking-off, Fuel Cells On The Decline

Solar Farm

By Maura Forrest

May 14, 2015

New U.S. clean energy patents hit a record high last year, with 3,609 new patents issued, over 400 more than the previous year.

Solar power and electric vehicle technologies were the big winners, with the number of new patents in those sectors increasing by over 25 per cent from 2014, according to new figures from the Clean Energy Patent Growth Index.

While solar power is surging, fuel-cell patents are on the decline. Solar power surpassed fuel-cell technology in 2013 for the largest number of annual patents. In 2014, solar technology produced 1,238 new U.S. patents, while fuel cells generated just 880 patents, down from 1,024 in 2012. 

Most other clean technologies, including wind, biomass, geothermal, and tidal power produced modest gains in new patents last year.

Patents are an important measure of growth in the clean technology industry, according to the report.

“The granting of a patent is an indicator that efforts at innovation have been successful and that an innovation had enough perceived value to justify the time and expense in procuring the patent,” the authors wrote.

Still, the growing number of new patents doesn’t necessarily mean that more players are entering the clean-tech sector. In 2014, the top patent holders were Toyota, General Motors, Samsung, Hyundai, and Honda. The big auto retailers have long dominated in fuel-cell technology, which generated most new clean-tech patents until 2010, when other technologies like solar power began to take off.

The United States led the way for new U.S. patents last year, followed by Japan, Korea, and Germany.

Canada landed in ninth place, between China and Great Britain, with 55 new patents in 2014. Close to half of those were fuel-cell patents, mainly created by Ballard Power Systems, the B.C.-based fuel-cell company.

Part of Canada’s lower standing is certainly due to the fact that the nation has no large auto manufacturer to rival Toyota or General Motors.

But the report also looked only at patents filed in the U.S., not in Canada. The Canadian Intellectual Property Office took steps in 2011 to expedite the approval of patents related to clean technology, to facilitate the “commercialization of technologies that could help to resolve or mitigate environmental impacts.”