The role of renewable energy in global power generation is growing — particularly for solar power. Thanks to increasing innovation and decreasing costs, global solar capacity has doubled from 2018 to 2021. According to Nature Communications, solar power is currently on track to become the world’s dominant source of power by 2050.
If you’re innovating in the solar industry, patents will be a primary tool for legally protecting your IP. This is because solar power systems can typically be reverse engineered by competitors, which means you can’t protect them as trade secrets — making patent protection your best bet.
But developing a patent portfolio to protect your technology is also a big investment. If you’re evaluating IP opportunities in the field of solar power, it’s important to first understand: What does the technology for solar power encompass, and what is the current state of the art?
What is Solar Technology?
Solar technology harnesses electromagnetic radiation (i.e., light) from the sun in order to produce power.
Generally, there are three key types of solar technologies:
1. Photovoltaics (PVs)
- Convert sunlight (photons) directly into electrical energy (voltage) — hence the name.
- Each individual unit is known as a PV cell. By employing a modular structure, PV systems can power a diverse range of electrical needs, from small electronic devices to large commercial businesses.
- Due to growing cost competitiveness, PVs have become the most common form of solar technology today.
2. Concentrating solar-thermal power (CSP)
- Uses mirrors to concentrate the sun’s energy onto a receiver in order to drive traditional steam engines or turbines that then generate power.
- Mostly seen in utility-scale projects.
3. Solar heating and cooling (SHC) systems
- Uses thermal energy from the sun to provide heating and cooling for residential, commercial, and industrial purposes.
- Application examples: Hot water, space heating, pool heating
- Importantly, SHC systems displace the need to use electricity or natural gas as power sources.
What Types of Solar Technology Can Be Patented?
Many types of solar technologies can be patented, and there are often a variety of ways to craft patent claims for any type of technology. For solar technologies, it’s useful to think about three broad categories of claims that might be pursued in a patent: materials, systems, and methods.
In a nutshell, here’s how that list breaks down:
- New materials or compositions of matter
- New uses for existing materials
- New methods of processing or fabricating materials
- New systems for improving the efficiency of existing solar power systems
- New systems for harvesting solar power
- New systems for storing and managing solar power
- New systems to combine solar with other forms of alternative energy
- New methods for installing solar energy systems
- New methods of operating solar energy systems (e.g., more efficiently)
- New methods for recycling ageing solar energy systems
In the next section, we’ll dive deeper into what each category means. We’ll also provide examples of recent and ongoing developments in the industry to illustrate how each category might work in practice.
Recent and Ongoing Developments in Solar Technology
In a thriving, fast-growing industry like solar technology, it’s important to keep up with recent and ongoing developments in order to better understand the industry’s competitive landscape.
So, here’s a summary of some of the most recent developments that we’ve been tracking. For convenience, we’ve grouped them as materials, systems and methods, to help you see how they might fit into the patent landscape.
New Solar Technology Materials
For solar technology to continue proliferating, it must become more efficient, sustainable, and cost-effective. On the materials side, this can be accomplished by developing new types of materials and streamlining the production of these materials.
As one example, a group of researchers from the University of Texas at Austin recently developed a new hybrid material that absorbs long-wavelength (lower energy) light and transforms it into short-wavelength (higher energy) light. The material could be used in solar cells to capture near-infrared light that would otherwise pass through, leading to increased efficiency.
As another example, many investors worldwide have identified perovskite as a possible key material in the next generation of climate technology. Perovskite could potentially lead to increased output efficiency and production sustainability for solar cells; however, the material has low stability and durability, and its operational lifetime is still too short for mainstream use.
Companies working to commercialize perovskite-based products include:
- CubicPV (MA and TX, USA)
- Caelux (CA, USA)
- Oxford PV (Europe)
- Panasonic (Japan)
Meanwhile, researchers at City University of Hong Kong have just discovered a way to keep perovskite-based solar cells thermally stable — a critical development toward commercializing the material.
New Solar Technology Systems
Materials serve as the building blocks for larger solar technology systems — and these systems can see a wide range of applications across various industries.
New systems that improve upon existing systems
Given the industry focus on making solar technology more cost-effective, the main goal of most current innovation seems to be developing new systems that improve the efficiency of existing solar power systems.
For example, researchers at MIT have developed a solar-powered system that splits water molecules in order to create hydrogen — a process that is carbon-free as it relies entirely on solar energy.
This type of system is not unprecedented; however, other contemporary solar thermochemical hydrogen (STCH) systems have typically only seen a 7% efficiency rate, meaning that they are low yield and high expense. The design of the MIT system promises to increase that efficiency rate to 40%.
New systems for harvesting, storing, and managing solar power
There is also potential in looking beyond historically tried and tested systems.
As a case in point, space-based solar power — where solar power is harnessed from orbit and transmitted back to Earth — has long been a pipe dream. Unlike terrestrial renewables, space-based solar power can be available continuously, and can reach more geographic locations. And unlike terrestrial options, it has always been prohibitively expensive.
However, in very recent years, the economics of satellite-generated solar power have changed. As the manufacture of satellites turns toward factory processes, space-based systems have started to feel like they could soon be financially viable.
To that end, a number of researchers worldwide — in both the public and private sectors — have been exploring what’s possible. These include:
- ZhuRi program (China)
- Space Solar (UK)
- Caltech (USA)
There have also been rapid advancements in battery technology, which could revolutionize the way solar power is stored and managed in devices from EVs to mobile phones. We’ve previously discussed the key features of battery technology, and how to make your battery technology stand out in such a saturated field.
New systems that combine solar with other forms of alternative energy
Hybrid systems, which are powered by multiple forms of alternative energy, are advantageous because they can ensure a more consistent supply of power year-round — regardless of changes in time, seasons, or the weather.
One company investing in hybrid systems is VSB, which has been developing a wind and solar hybrid system in Finland. VSB has already successfully built a hybrid wind and solar farm in Juurakko, Kalajoki; the firm is now building a second in the North Ostrobothnia region, and this is expected to complete construction at the end of 2023.
New Solar Technology Methods
There have also been significant strides related to the methods of installing and dismantling solar installations.
As an example, researchers at Australian National University have been investigating ways to install solar panels in offshore environments — namely, by having the panels float on calm equatorial seas near Nigeria and Indonesia. Thanks to the environmental factors of mild winds, gentle waves, and strong sunlight, a solar panel array installed on those seas could potentially generate nearly unlimited energy.
As another example, the rapid evolution of solar technology has created a significant amount of worn, damaged, and obsolete panels — all of which are currently disposed of in landfills. To reduce this waste, the company We Recycle Solar has opened the first utility-scale solar panel recycling plant in the United States, and has developed multiple processes to refurbish or repurpose old solar panels.
The Global Patent Landscape for Solar Technology
These and other innovations in the solar industry show that the interest in developing solar technologies is active and present worldwide; the examples above include companies and investors from all over the globe.
Since patents give you the right to exclude others from using your IP (as opposed to simply allowing you to use the IP), a solid patent strategy for solar technology should take an international approach, i.e. you should file patent applications in multiple jurisdictions throughout the world.
With that in mind, it’s important to better understand the current global landscape for solar technology.
Top solar patent filers by country
According to the WIPO, in the last decade (2010-2019), these five countries were the top filers of solar patent applications:
- Japan (5,360)
- United States (3,876)
- China (1,892)
- Republic of Korea (1,803)
- Germany (1,534)
Although Japan is leading the pack in terms of total numbers, China is experiencing the fastest growth: the majority of its applications (58.9%) were made in the second half of the decade.
In addition, China is top-ranked for patent families (which are a set of patent applications taken in more than one country in order to protect a single invention) — which tells us that China may regard their products as having the potential to be commercialized worldwide.
Top solar patent filers by company
Unsurprisingly, East Asian companies are also leading the patent field for solar technology.
According to Energy Monitor, these are the top 10 companies listed as assignees for patent publications relating to solar PV technology:
- Mitsubishi Group (Japan): 7,711
- Panasonic (Japan): 7,374
- Samsung Group (South Korea): 6,407
- Sharp (Japan): 5,785
- E. Merck (Germany): 4,654
- LG (South Korea): 4,132
- SunPower (United States): 3,760
- Canon (Japan): 3,739
- LG Display (South Korea): 3,605
- Fujifilm Holdings (Japan): 3,471
Notably, despite China’s recent growth and investments in the field, there is no Chinese company on this list.
That said, China is certainly dominating the conversation around producing solar technologies at scale: The IEA reports that China currently controls the manufacture of more than 80% of all the components of solar panels.
Working with an Experienced Attorney to Craft Your Patent Strategy
Given the importance of patents to protect solar IP, the rapid growth of the solar industry, and the complexity of the current patent landscape, we strongly recommend partnering with an experienced patent attorney to determine your next steps.
At Henry Patent Law Firm, our team is deeply qualified to handle the various types of solar technologies described through this article. In particular, our patent agent Ke Sun has a rich background in chemistry and chemical engineering — not to mention, also has first-hand experience with developing solar technologies of his own.
Ready to begin crafting a strong patent strategy for your solar innovation? Contact us now to find out how we can help.
Michael K. Henry, Ph.D.
Michael K. Henry, Ph.D., is a principal and the firm’s founding member. He specializes in creating comprehensive, growth-oriented IP strategies for early-stage tech companies.