Patents Show Renewable-Energy Innovation Booming

A new study published in the journal PLoS ONE not only shows that the number of new patents for renewable-energy technology has risen sharply over the past decade, but more importantly, it pinpoints how investment in research and development, combined with the market growth for these products, worked together to spur dramatic levels of innovation. While that may sound like common sense, the study also solved the riddle of the accelerated research breakthroughs that have literally exploded despite previous years of modest R&D funding.

To do this, the study's researchers had to develop a model that explained the nonlinear quality of the data documenting this leap in innovation. "We were quite surprised," says Jessika Trancik, an assistant professor of engineering systems at MIT and a co-author of the study along with Lu?s Bettencourt of SFI and graduate student Jasleen Kaur from Indiana University. Starting from the assumption that patents should provide "a measure of the intensity of innovative activity," they built and examined a huge database of 73,000 energy-related patents issued from more than 100 countries between 1970 and 2009.

Knowledge persists

Our database "gives you a view into innovation activity -- who's doing it, and where," Trancik says. The increase was most dramatic in renewable energy, chiefly solar energy and wind. Patents in fossil-fuel technologies showed a more modest increase, while those in nuclear technology were 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.

Overall, renewable-energy patents in the United States increased from fewer than 200 per year in the period from 1975 to 2000 to more than 1,000 annually by 2009. By comparison, there were about 300 fossil-fuel-related patents in 2009, up from about 100 a year in earlier decades.

Some of the report's findings are counter intuitive: while there was a large increase in research funding following the oil shocks of the 1970s and 1980s, it was followed by a steep dropoff. But the effect of those investments is visible in the current patent boom, Trancik says. "Knowledge persists," she says, reinforcing one of the report's chief insights. "A lot of work was done in the '70s and '80s, a lot of effort was put in, we're still benefitting from that."

Trancik says the team saw the cumulative effect of investment in research, by both governments and industry, and the effect of growth in the market for renewable-energy systems -- which also benefitted from government subsidies, incentives and tax breaks.

Retiring cultural cliches

Although the researchers found regional differences, many trends were similar, Trancik says. For example, her data contradicts simplistic media stereotypes: while China has been accused of taking advantage of technologies invented elsewhere, and then innovating mainly in production processes, the new patent-based data painted a different picture. Patents filed in China for renewable-energy technology (which includes patents filed by foreign inventors or companies) showed dramatic growth over the last few years.

"China's really taking off," Trancik says, adding that "understanding the nature of the technological development requires a close look at patent content."

The cumulative, long-term effect of research investment is another significant finding from this study, she says. Investments tend to come in cycles, she says, "so this persistence of knowledge is significant -- and comforting, in a way."

Investment in both the basic research and then the implementation of the new technologies play an important role, Trancik says. "The data really show the importance of this, of the two forms of investment working together," she says.

For example, in the case of well-established consumer technologies, such as computers, the transition to implementation by industry can be swift. But for other less-established or less-visible technologies, this process can take longer.

"Improving something that's not valued in the market ... requires more investment," Trancik says. A lighter laptop, or one with a longer battery life, provides an obvious benefit to the consumer, "whereas a consumer wouldn't notice when turning on the lights whether there's more or less carbon emissions." That's where government regulations and investments can help jump-start new technology, she says. Watch a detailed talk about her research:

Finally, the study's primary insight is that since new technologies often require a long time to develop, public investment is crucial at an early stage, allowing the technology to take off once markets kick in. "This has happened with many familiar technologies, such as cell phones, so we wanted to better understand if it may be about to happen to new energy technologies."

For more details, read the full MIT press release.

Should ARPA-e grants validate her insights?

Images: Jessika Trancik, PopTech by Chris Krug; graphs, MIT; wind turbines, J?rgen from Sandesneben, Germany