Georgina Ainscow, Andrew Carridge & Duncan Nevett, patent attorneys at Reddie & Grose LLP, explain the net-zero by 2050 ambition & why tomorrow’s clean energy ambitions depend on innovation today
According to the IEA’s Energy Technology Perspectives 2020 report, more than a third of the emissions reductions required to achieve net-zero by 2050 will stem from technologies not commercially available today. So, what are the emerging technologies that could get us there faster? And how can the companies working to innovate in the renewable energy sector use IP protection, such as patents, to generate the breakthroughs that will help us reach net-zero?
Assessing the renewable energy landscape
2019 was the first year that renewable energy sources (38.9%) overtook all other energy sources in the UK. It’s a nice milestone, but the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) indicates the UK must be running on 50% renewable energy by 2030 to enable a cost-effective path to achieve net-zero by 2050.
According to the IEA report, rapid progress towards net-zero depends on faster innovation in four key technologies: electrification, hydrogen, biofuels and carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS). However, the report also finds that after a strong decade of growth in the number of low-carbon technology patents being filed, there has been a notable decline since 2011.
It’s true patents offer an insight into the research activities that are generating innovation and perceived commercial value, but the decline since 2011 could be for a number of reasons e.g., high production costs, technologies reaching maturity, or companies focusing on areas of green technology not picked up by the report.
What the patent landscape does show is a crowded market. It seems unlikely one single company will be able to provide the silver bullet to crack the renewable energy conundrum. So, the path to net-zero could largely be paved by many incremental contributions that will unlock further innovations. Companies with robust patent filing programmes will be able to commercialise their technological breakthroughs and invest in further innovation.
Easing into electrification
The IEA expects increased electrification to account for approximately 30% of the annual CO2 reductions in 2070. A significant portion of these reductions are due to come from the transport sector, largely thanks to the expected uptake of electric vehicles (EVs). Firstly, in light-weight vehicles such as cars, and later in heavy-duty vehicles such as buses and trucks.
There are two viable approaches to powering an EV – large batteries that can be charged with electricity from the grid, or smaller batteries that are constantly charged by fuel cells. Whilst Tesla CEO, Elon Musk is sceptical of hydrogen fuel cell batteries, Toyota and General Motors have placed their bets on both technologies, building significant patent portfolios in both large batteries and fuel cells. Hydrogen fuel cells are much lighter than large batteries and could allow for the electrification of transport forms where excess weight is undesirable, such as commercial aviation.
From a patent perspective, filing numbers related to battery electric vehicles (BEV) have increased 400% in the last ten years. Fuel cell filings have increased by just 20% in the same time period; however, they are steadily increasing. In fact, those with the largest fuel cell patent portfolios are the car manufacturers, with the largest number of patents being filed by Toyota, Hyundai, Nissan and Honda, showing that East Asia is dominating in this area.
If battery-powered EVs are to help us on the path to net-zero, a solution will be needed for the greenhouse gas emissions that result from the extraction of raw materials needed for batteries. Or there will need to be advancements in recycling methods. As it stands, fuel cells are the cleanest overall option. So, it’s likely hydrogen fuel cells will become more widespread in the future.
Harnessing the potential of CO2
CCUS technologies involve the capture of carbon dioxide (CO2) from fuel combustion or industrial processes and recycling it for further usage. CCUS for mitigating climate change is a relatively new space, with 95% of all patents being filed in the last ten years.
For CCUS to be successful, multiple components need to be in sync for the removal or capture of CO2 from the atmosphere, followed by utilisation and storage. CO2 is currently used commercially in a multitude of ways, including in the production of carbonated drinks and urea, which is used for nitrogen-based fertilisers. Other use-cases are emerging, such as in building materials and feedstock for synthetic fuels. Many of the major players in CCUS have recognised the importance of patent filing when it comes to encouraging innovation.
The IEA’s Sustainable Development Scenario (SDS) anticipates that biofuels will reach around 10% of aviation fuel demand by 2030, and close to 20% by 2040. Companies such as Lanzatech are making breakthroughs in CCUS and partnering with the likes of Virgin Atlantic to develop jet fuel from carbon waste gases. Enabled by a comprehensive patent portfolio, they can licence their technology to customers who may then implement the circular economy in their supply chain and product offering. This is an example of a strong patent portfolio proving a significant asset for generating revenue, which in turn funds further technological developments.
The way forward
The transition to net-zero won’t happen overnight, but it’s clear from the patent landscape that companies are seeing the value in patent filing strategies to effectively exploit their research and innovation. It’s also clear patents have a role to play in commercialising innovation in areas where the technology is yet to be proven. Companies with robust patent-filing systems are helping push forward the technological innovation that will get us to net-zero by 2050, and ensuring that other companies in the sector can build on their innovations.