Innovation in solar, wind and other renewable power is booming worldwide, especially in China, and is now eclipsing that in fossil fuels — an about-face that occurred in just one generation, new research shows.
In the United States alone, the number of renewable-energy patents exceeded 1,000 annually by 2009 — up from fewer than 200 per year in the 1975-2000 period. In contrast, patents for coal, oil or gas technologies rose to about 300 in 2009, up from 100 annually in earlier decades.
"It's good news," says study co-author Jessika Trancik, an engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, noting power sources that emit little or no carbon dioxide help mitigate climate change. She attributes the increase to research funding and market demand, adding: "There's a lot of momentum in this area."
Worldwide, the number of wind patents increased 19% annually and solar ones 13% each year between 2004 and 2009, the study says. Japan has the most cumulative solar patents, followed by the United States and China, but China is obtaining more of these patents than any other country in recent years.
Trancik says President Obama's Recovery Act boosted federal funds for renewable energy research, but the U.S. patent uptick in this sector started earlier — in 2000. She and Luis Bettencourt of the Santa Fe Institute, a private, non-profit, independent research center in New Mexico, built a database of 73,000 energy-related patents issued in more than 100 countries between 1970 and 2009.
"There's almost an unlimited amount of innovation, and we're seeing that through patents," says Joel Makower, executive editor of GreenBiz.com, which covers business sustainability efforts. He says technologies will continue to improve solar panels in the same way they have computers. Eventually, he says they'll be woven into textiles and "we'll be wearing them."
And that's just the novelty stuff. Mind-boggling ideas are also underway, including MIT chemist Daniel Nocera's push to turn a silicon wafer into an "artificial leaf" that can mimic photosynthesis and harness energy from the sun to power cars and homes.
What's driving this innovation is demand. Makower says Apple and Google are investing heavily in solar energy, because they can't grow their businesses without a reliable source to power their huge data centers. "This is not a warm fuzzy thing to do," he says. "This has become a business imperative."
Obama said in June that U.S. electricity from solar and wind power has doubled in the past four years, and he called for another doubling by 2020. He also noted that the United States is now producing more natural gas than any other country and nearly more oil than it imports.