Kate Mackenzie Has the recession been good for clean energy?


Source: CEPGI

As an industry still largely in its formative years, you would have expected clean energy to have had a rough time over the past 18 months.

Not only did the funding model for much of the US renewable energy industry put the sector within a whisker of being dragged down in Wall Street’s wake, but the general economic climate also threatened to put numerous projects on hold.

But clean tech patents – admittedly only a rough indicator of industry sentiment – suggests a more confident picture. US patent filings for clean energy rose to their highest-ever level in the last three months of 2009, according to a report from consultancy Cleantech Group and intellectual property lawyers Heslin Rothenberg Farley & Mesiti:

U.S. patents for clean-energy technologies in 2009 were at an all time high with 200 more patents than 2008 at 1125.

… patents in fuel cells and hybrid/electric vehicles were each up over twenty percent over 2008 with solar patents up sixty percent and biomass/biofuel energy patents up two hundred sixty percent. Fuel Cells, wind, and biomass/biofuel energy patents were also at all time highs in 2009. In contrast, hydroelectric and tidal patents decreased in 2009 while geothermal patents were up only one patent over the year prior.

As can be seen from the slide at the top, the current rate of patent filings is now a little shy of 50 per cent above its trend from 2003-2008.

For all the hype about Silicon Valley venture capitalists turning green, it’s interesting to note that this boom is made in Detroit, not San Jose – and fuel cells continue to be the focus. The top three filers were Honda, GM, and Toyota:

Fuel cell patents continued to dwarf the other components of the Clean Energy Patent Growth Index in 2009 with over four times the number of patents of nearest competitors wind and solar.

The favourable clean tech picture stands in contrast to a general decline in innovation since the recession took hold.  International patent filings fell 4.5 per cent in 2009, according to the World Intellectual Property Organisation, with drops of more than 10 per cent in the US, Germany, Sweden, Israel, and Canada offset by continued strength in east Asia (Chinese filings grew 30 per cent, to put it ahead of France and the UK in the top five innovators).

That contrast may not be as much of an anomaly as it seems. Some economists argue that patent filings are unaffected or even experience a modest bump in recessions as companies focus on an activity that can produce a handsome long-term return on investment for a relatively modest up-front cost.

But it’s certainly hard to believe that the picture would be looking so robust without Washington’s green stimulus measures – nearly 7 per cent of the filings would likely have been swallowed up in the legal black hole of a General Motors bankruptcy, for starters.

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