• Europe is a leading source of energy-related innovation, according to a new report.
  • Electric vehicles are one of the main drivers of change.
  • While patents relating to renewables like wind, solar, hydro or geothermal have been falling since 2012.

The shift to low-carbon energy (LCE) is a crucial part of addressing the challenges of the climate crisis. Unless emissions are reduced and greener energy is increased, the thresholds for temperature rises outlined in the Paris Climate Agreement could be breached.

That’s according to the European Patent Office (EPO) and the International Energy Agency (IEA), who have issued their second report into the growth of the technologies needed to support the transition to greener types of energy. Called Patents and the energy transition: Global trends in clean energy technology innovation, the report examines the link between patented developments and support for greener energy use. The shift to LCE can only be achieved through an acceleration in energy-sector innovation, the report’s authors state.

To measure the progress made to date, the EPO and IEA have trawled global patent databases to identify trends in innovation, counting instances when patents have been filed in more than one office, known as international patent families (IPFs). “This patent information provides early indications of technological developments that are bound to transform the economy and can thus reveal how innovation is driving the energy transition,” the report says.

National differences

Between 2010 and 2019, Europe was responsible for 28% of all IPFs, and has consistently been the world leader in LCE-related patents. According to the report, Europe ranks “first in most renewable energy fields”.

Japan and the US follow Europe’s lead with 25% and 20% (respectively) of global IPFs in the same nine-year period. For Japan, batteries and hydrogen are two areas of clear leadership in the LCE sector, both of which stand to benefit from the growth of electric vehicles and alternatives to fossil fuels. The US was singled out for making gains in the aviation industry and other low-carbon combustion developments.

While Korea (10% of all IPFs) and China (8% of all IPFs) are regarded by the report as “modest innovation centres in LCE technologies”, there have been noticeable increases in related patents in the past decade.

a chart showing the main revealed technology advantages of global innovation centres
Innovation is driving the energy transition.
Image: IEA report: Patents and the energy transition: Global trends in clean energy technology innovation

LCE innovation is bouncing back

There was a slowing down in the growth of IPFs for green energy between 2014 and 2016. But, the EPO/IEA report says, it is on the rise again. Furthermore, the increase in the number of LCE-related patents corresponds with declines in the use of fossil fuel.

Although that is a positive indicator, there is still a lot more that needs to be done. “The current growth rate of IPFs in LCE (3.3% since 2017) remains slower than that before 2013,” according to the report’s key findings.

a chart showing the global growth of IPFs in low-carbon technologies versus fossil fuel technologies and all technologies, 2000-2019 (base 100 in 200)
The growth of green energy is on the rise, but more still needs to be done.
Image: IEA report: Patents and the energy transition: Global trends in clean energy technology innovation

From supply to end-use

Since 2017, most of the growth in LCE-related patents has been connected to batteries, hydrogen, smart grids, as well as carbon capture, utilization and storage (CCUS). All of which are important enablers of the energy transition.

Overall, 60% of all LCE patents across the past five years have been connected to fuel-switching and energy efficiency technologies. Perhaps surprisingly, IPFs relating to renewables like wind, solar, hydro or geothermal have been falling since 2012.

a chart showing the global growth of IPFs in clean energy supply, enabling and end-use technologies, 2000-2019
Overall, 60% of all LCE patents across the past five years have been connected to fuel-switching and energy efficiency technologies.
Image: IEA report: Patents and the energy transition: Global trends in clean energy technology innovation

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the transition to clean energy?

Moving to clean energy is key to combating climate change, yet in the past five years, the energy transition has stagnated.

Energy consumption and production contribute to two-thirds of global emissions, and 81% of the global energy system is still based on fossil fuels, the same percentage as 30 years ago. Plus, improvements in the energy intensity of the global economy (the amount of energy used per unit of economic activity) are slowing. In 2018 energy intensity improved by 1.2%, the slowest rate since 2010.

Effective policies, private-sector action and public-private cooperation are needed to create a more inclusive, sustainable, affordable and secure global energy system.

Benchmarking progress is essential to a successful transition. The World Economic Forum’s Energy Transition Index, which ranks 115 economies on how well they balance energy security and access with environmental sustainability and affordability, shows that the biggest challenge facing energy transition is the lack of readiness among the world’s largest emitters, including US, China, India and Russia. The 10 countries that score the highest in terms of readiness account for only 2.6% of global annual emissions.

To future-proof the global energy system, the Forum’s Shaping the Future of Energy and Materials Platform is working on initiatives including, Systemic Efficiency, Innovation and Clean Energy and the Global Battery Alliance to encourage and enable innovative energy investments, technologies and solutions.

Additionally, the Mission Possible Platform (MPP) is working to assemble public and private partners to further the industry transition to set heavy industry and mobility sectors on the pathway towards net-zero emissions. MPP is an initiative created by the World Economic Forum and the Energy Transitions Commission.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

Electric vehicles are driving change

When it comes to new energy use and its use by consumers, it is the advent of the electric vehicle that is ushering in the most visible change. Whether it’s batteries, the vehicles themselves, or charging infrastructure, there has been a significant push in IPFs in this field.

“The number of IPFs in electric vehicles overtook other clean energy technologies for road vehicles as of 2011,” the report says.

a chart showing the global growth of IPFs in electric vehicles versus other LCE technologies for road transportation, 2000-2019
Electric cars are generating the most visible change when it comes to energy usage.
Image: IEA report: Patents and the energy transition: Global trends in clean energy technology innovation