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Renewable Energy Technology Innovation Rising

17 October 2013

The number of patents issued for renewable energy technologies has risen sharply over the last decade, according to a study.

The study, conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Santa Fe Institute, shows dramatic increase in patents related to renewable energy, chiefly solar energy and wind. Patents in fossil-fuel technologies showed a more modest increase, while those in nuclear technology were flat.

The study came from a newly created database of energy-related patents issued in more than 100 countries between 1970 and 2009. The database was composed using keyword searches of the patents themselves, rather than the classifications assigned by patent offices.

In all, the team examined more than 73,000 patents issued for energy-related technologies.

Statistical analysis showed a clear correlation between this rise in patents and prior investments in R&D, along with growth in the markets for such renewable technologies.

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. The fraction of all patents accounted for by energy is also increasing.

The study research team observed a 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.

The trends were similar in the U.S. and elsewhere. Patents filed in China for renewable-energy technology (which includes patents filed by foreign inventors or companies) have grown dramatically over the last few years.

The research study was supported by the Army Research Office, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the National Science Foundation, and the Solomon Buchsbaum Research Fund.

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