IP Trends In Green Technologies

We previously discussed the importance of green technology and the role of intellectual property to counteract the effects of climate change. At the same time, we also highlighted the primary role of investment in this technological cycle, since without investment, there is no innovation to start with.

To read the previous article about climate change, green technologies and the impact of IP rights in green innovation, please refer to this link

Evolution Of Green Patents

In almost a decade (2010-2019), the world has invested around 3 trillion USD in renewables (IEA report tracking power 2019). In the last 4 years, the demand and generation for clean energy has been rising -after a slump between 2011-2013- which drove the investment in renewables.

Patents on renewable energy are the most common patents among the considered "clean or green technologies". In the year 2000, less than 1% of the total number of applications corresponded to these kinds of patents, while in the last 4 years, that percentage rose to 20%.

Graph made using the total number of patents published by Erin Duffin Nov 20, 2019, and IRENA data on renewable patents from their technology patent report.

Furthermore, renewable energy patents filed between 2018-2019 reached near 21000, while in the previous period the number was around 16000, evidencing the increasing interest in this type of technology, especially these last few years (

Renewable Energy Patent Landscape

IRENE INSPIRE, has been following the trends on renewable energy patents. According to their report, today there are near 600,000 patents in renewables worldwide, with solar, wind, and bioenergy hoarding close to 90 percent. But by far, solar power is the leading technology accounting for more than 57% of the green patents in 2018-2019.

Filed patents in renewable energy (RE) technologies (IRENA INSPIRE).

Electric Vehicles Also Lead The Trends

The latest reports are evidencing a critical transition in the transport sector, especially in the last 2 years. The average increase in emissions was relatively stable at 1.6% annually, but the emissions rose only 0.6% from the year 2018 which is at least partially explained by the rising electric car sales. In 2018, sales of both battery-electric and plug-in hybrids surpassed 2 million units. China alone sold over 1 million electric cars, followed by Europe and the US with 385000 and 361000 units respectively. This represents an increase in the market by 68%, that makes room for fairly optimistic projections (IEA global EV outlook 2019). The number of electric vehicle-related patents filed in 2018 rose to 7500 worldwide, and estimations announced around 8500 patent filings for this 2020.

Inputs vs Outputs In Green Innovation

In general, there is a worldwide tendency to expending more in R&D annually. According to a study of R&D World magazine, global spending on R&D has reached records of more than 2.3 trillion USD in which 6 countries account to almost 70 percent of that spending: the United States, China, Japan, Germany, India, and South Korea. In general, one thing they all have in common is a strong spending by the private sector and the high percentage of R&D expenditure as a share of gross domestic product (GDP). Regarding R&D spending to GDP, South Korea leads among these countries with a strong 4.5%, followed by Japan and its 3.2% (both up to 2018). But these expenses just partially explain the real outputs in technologies. If we look at the distribution in the number of patents observed worldwide -at least regarding renewable energy-related patents- for example, China, United States, and Japan take the lead by far from the rest of the world. But what about the quality of these patents? Patent intensity is not the only indicator to measure innovation; not all inventions are patented, and not all patents are good inventions. Not just the patent intensity, but other outputs such as technology commercialization should be considered when measuring innovation.

Is Korea An Efficient Innovator?

Taking in consideration the inputs in innovation as the creation or development of green technology, and outputs as the ability to patent and commercialize the innovation, the CLEANTECH realized a study to determine a score on green innovation of 40 countries, including all of the G20. Korea was in the top 11 countries, with the highest score in Asia. According to the report, Seoul is among the top 5 science and technology clusters and maintains its strong position in R&D indicators such as the number of researchers, national patent applications, and high-technology exports. Along with Germany and Singapore, Korea appears as an efficient innovator, producing well-scored outputs compared to other countries without having leading inputs to innovation scores. The drops in the "input" index of Korea were due to a decrease in perceived entrepreneurial opportunities, but that has been fixed in the last few years. It is noteworthy that the scores are calculated with numbers before 2017, and hence, it is highly likely that in the next report it will enter the top 10. Furthermore and more importantly, is that Korea is among the top 5 countries with "evidence for commercialized cleantech", that is the final stage of the entire innovation process. The high score of Korea in this division is due to the presence of a good number of fully commercialized clean/green companies with strong patent portfolios, making the country fit in the archetype of "cleantech commercializer".

Korea's Patenting Trends In Renewable Energy Technologies

As mentioned above, and considering the evolution of renewable energy, solar power generation is worldwide and the most successful technology so far. Growing market demand for solar installations has been accompanied by growth in the number of patent applications, and Korea is not an exception. In this country, more than 55 percent of the patents filed for renewables belong to solar power generation (i.e. solar photovoltaic (PV), solar thermal, or PV-thermal hybrid) and is among the top countries with most documented product innovations (see Table 1). Furthermore, Korea is among the countries with the 'best-in-class' documented product innovations along with the US, Japan, Germany, and Australia (from WIPO report on solar PV).

A very interesting trend, is that if we check the number of patent applications by year, there seems to be a decrease in the number of filed applications after 2012. In fact, except for China, the entry of new applicants in the US, Germany, Japan, and Korea has declined. But on the other hand, the number of patent applications filed per applicant has increased, in all these "major player" countries of the solar production (see Table 2).

Compared to chips and electronic devices, energy technology is less known for the Korean market, but still a few representing companies are worldwide leaders and are continuously growing in terms of patents and innovation commercialization. In the last year's 'Tokyo Smart Energy Week' the Korean companies LS ELECTRIC (former LSIS) and Hanwha Q CELLS for example showed the marketability of their technologies and gained attention in Japan, which is a global leader in these matters. LS ELECTRIC was the first Korean company that commercialized solar panel modules and after completing a construction of several billion won projects in Japan, it recently built the world's largest self-sufficient DC (direct-current) energy island in Korea for both, power generation and distribution. Regarding IP activities, in the past five years this company has applied for 2336 domestic patents and 3109 international patents in the energy sector, and we found that more than 150 of those patents applications are related to solar power generation. LS ELECTRIC was also selected as a "Derwent Top 100 Global Innovator" for eight consecutive years along with LG and Samsung Electronics for its steady efforts to enhance its global IP capability and was the only Korean company among these 3 selected in the oil, gas & energy sector. Hanwha Q CELLS on the other hand is a Korean-German company (In 2012, Q-Cells -a German-based manufacturer- was bought by Hanwha) that is gaining attention as a provider of integrated solar power and consumption system with their QANTUM technology products. In March 2019 the company filed a complaint against Longi Solar, JinkoSolar, and REC Group in the US for infringement on a patent filed in 2008 (U.S. Patent No. 9,893,215 also called '215 patent'). The Korean company claims its competitors used proprietary technology to increase the efficiency and performance of their solar cells. A similar complaint was filed in Germany and Australia. Through these lawsuits the company is seeking an exclusion order to "stop the importation of infringing products and a permanent cease and desist order to stop the respondents from importing, marketing and selling those products in the U.S". Nevertheless, in the US the accused companies refuted the allegations and applied for an interim review of the patent, and up until two decisions - from the U.S. International Trade Commission Administrative Law Judge and U.S. Patent and Trademark Appeal Board (PTAB)- have not been favorable to Hanwha Q CELLS. Still, final written decisions on the issue of patentability and infringement are expected in December 2020 (from Jinko press release).

About the author

Claudia Corvalan

Claudia studied biological sciences in her home country, Chile and continued to pursue her academic ...

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