EPO-IEA study highlights need to accelerate innovation in clean energy technologies to meet climate goals

  • Global patent data shows innovation in the past decade has been increasing faster in low-carbon energy technologies than in fossil fuels
  • Innovation is shifting from renewable energy supply to end-use and cross-cutting technologies such as batteries, hydrogen, smart grids and carbon capture
  • Clean energy technologies in end-use sectors such as transport, buildings and industry now account for majority (60%) of all low-carbon energy inventions
  • Cross-cutting technologies showed strongest patent growth since 2017
  • The rise in patents related to electric vehicles is a key driver of clean energy innovation
  • Europe leads overall with a 28% share of global low-carbon energy patents in past decade, followed by Japan (25%), US (20%), South Korea (10%) and China (8%)

Munich, 27 April 2021 – The number of patents for inventions related to low-carbon energy technologies around the world grew by an average rate of 3.3% per year in the 2017-19 period, a new joint study published today by the European Patent Office (EPO) and the International Energy Agency (IEA) shows.

The report,Patents and the energy transition: global trends in clean energy technology innovation,finds that except for a slump between 2014 and 2016 the number of global patents in low-carbon energy technologies has been rising over the past two decades. This contrasts with a decline in patenting in fossil fuels since 2015. However, the average annual growth rate of low-carbon energy patents in recent years is only a quarter of what it was a decade ago (+12.5% for 2000-13).

Some of these technologies are already in use on an industrial scale, while others are still at an early stage of development or deployment. According to the IEA, current climate targets can only be achieved by a major acceleration in clean-energy innovation, as many of the technologies required in the coming decades to bring down CO2 emissions are only at the prototype or demonstration phase today.

The changing energy innovation landscape

The report presents the major trends in low-carbon energy innovation between 2000 and 2019 measured in terms of international patent families (IPFs), each of which represents a high-value invention for which patent applications have been filed at two or more patent offices worldwide. As patent applications are filed many months, or even years, before products appear on the market, they are often seen as an early indicator of future technology trends.

The biggest end-use sectors for global clean energy patents in 2000-19 were transport (total of 116 000 IPFs in 2000-19) followed by energy-efficiency technologies for industrial production (86 000 IPFs), with some “hard-to-abate” sectors such as metallurg (e.g. steel production) being particularly dynamic in recent years.

Rise of electric vehicles boosts innovation

A key driver of innovation in the past decade has been the surge in technologies related to electric vehicles, spurred to a considerable extent by advances in rechargeable lithium-ion batteries This trend is also reflected in the ranking of top companies in low-carbon energy technologies since 2000, which includes six automotive companies and six of their main battery suppliers. Also in end-use technologies, the number of IPFs in electric vehicles overtook other clean energy technologies for road vehicles as of 2011 (including those aimed at more efficient combustion engines, as well as improved aerodynamics, weight reduction, or more energy-efficient components and subsystems).

Europe, Japan and US lead, each with different specialisations

Looking at the main regional innovation trends, the study finds that since 2000, European companies and research institutes have led in patenting low-carbon energy inventions, with 28% (12% for Germany alone) of all international patent families in these technologies in the past decade (2010-19), followed by Japanese (25%), US (20%), South Korean (10%) and Chinese (8%) applicants.

While Europe ranks first in most renewable energy fields and is particularly strong in some end-use sectors such as rail and aviation, Japan leads in electric vehicle technology, batteries and hydrogen, and the US has a technology edge in aviation, biofuels and carbon capture. South Korea's main strengths lie in batteries, solar PV technology, and energy efficiency in industrial production and the ICT sector, while China is also specialised in ICT.

Overall the share of IPFs in clean energy technologies generated by research institutions (universities and public research organisations) has increased (from 6.6% between 2000 and 2009 to 8.5% between 2010 and 2019). Research institutions are especially active in low-carbon energy supply technologies (alternative fuels, nuclear energy and some renewable energies) and emerging enabling technologies such as carbon capture and hydrogen.

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