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Historical challenges of solar energy


At least as far back as Archimedes of Syracuse, humans have sought to technologically harness the power of the Sun. However, until only recently, attempts to convert sunlight into useful, cost-efficient forms of energy with a low enough carbon footprint has been substantially difficult to achieve. Historically, silicon-based solar cells have required high amounts of energy input to manufacture, both through mining and high-temperature industrial processing. Organic materials have promised affordable and highly tailorable solar cells which can be manufactured to absorb at specific wavelengths, including in the infrared, and be engineered to be flexible to fit into all manners of daily life, but lag behind silicon-based device efficiencies.

According to the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Investment Report 2023, last year global renewable energy capacity experienced its fastest rate of growth in the past two decades, increasing by almost 50% to nearly 510 gigawatts. Globally, solar photovoltaics accounted for three quarters of renewable capacity additions, with China commissioning as much new photovoltaic energy capacity in 2023 as did the entire world in 2022. It is predicted that by 2028 42% of global electricity will be generated by renewable energy with wind and solar combined doubling its share to 25%, at which point photovoltaics are predicted to outstrip wind.


An understanding of the technological forecast of photovoltaics for the future of global sustainability requires insights into complex and interdependent fields spanning from governmental and supragovernmental policy making to incremental device efficiency advancements. Absolute investment figures may present misleading pictures, as the cost of photovoltaic manufacture and unit installation decrease year on year.  One must also note that statistics based on patent applications filed also represent an incomplete picture as they do not reflect the number of patents granted, which jurisdictions they are granted in, nor for how long those granted patents are maintained and enforced and their subject-matter exploited. However, understanding of patent trends may provide broad insights into industrial technological activity in photovoltaics and also indicate a general extent to which countries and industry are willing to invest in next generation technologies.


When compared to other renewable technologies, the number of published PCT applications relating to photovoltaics clearly indicates a rate of innovation which outstrips other forms of renewables, in absolute as well as relative metrics. Between 2002 and 2019, the number of photovoltaic applications published by WIPO increased by a factor of almost 7. Whilst applications based on wind technologies increased by approximately the same factor during the same time period, the share of photovoltaic applications increased from 26% to 52%, whereas those based on wind technology increased from 14% to 28%. Fuel cell and Geothermal combined accounted for a share of only 20% in 2019.


Geographical trends also facilitate an insight into global photovoltaic and renewable technology investment. Considering Europe (approximated by Germany, Denmark, France, UK, Spain and Italy), the US and Asia (approximated by Japan, South Korea and China) as the three major industrial zones, substantial differences in efforts to protect industrial intellectual innovation exist. Between 2010 and 2019, Asia accounted for 50% of all renewable energy PCT patent applications, 61% of which were for solar energy, whilst the US accounted for 20%, of which 61% were for solar, and Europe accounted for 28%, of which 37% were for solar. However, it is the increase in photovoltaic patent applications from China that is most stark, with approximately 60% of photovoltaic patent applications published between 2015 and 2019.


EU Renewable Energy Directive and Keltie's role


The revised EU Renewable Energy Directive, adopted in 2023, has established a new, EU-wide binding renewable energy target of a minimum of 42.5% by 2030, and attempting to become climate neutral by 2050. Such aspiration has generated substantial incentives for developing new and efficient technologies to achieve the EU’s green energy agenda. As a European intellectual property law firm with established bases in the UK and Ireland and with clients across the globe, Keltie has specialist expertise across chemical, physical and engineering industries. As such, Keltie is strategically placed to assist its clients, ranging from small start-ups to large multinationals, in protecting their renewable energy technologies.


Our team of experienced patent, trade mark and design attorneys assist our clients through a range of services from patent drafting and prosecution to due diligence, branding and portfolio management. We are therefore expertly placed and committed to bringing our clients the best service and highest standards to strategically protect their innovations to contribute to a greener and safer environment for all.

Continue reading about Patent Trends in Renewable Energy Production: Solar Cells
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