This increasing interest in wind energy is not surprising based on a recent U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) “Wind Technologies Market Report,” which reports that U.S. wind power capacity increased by 60% in 2008 – representing the fastest growing wind power market in the world. Although wind generates only 2% of the nation’s electricity supply, wind projects accounted for 42% of the new electric generating capacity in 2008. The report also concludes that the U.S. leads the world in new wind capacity, capturing approximately 30% of the global market and taking the lead over Germany in cumulative wind capacity.
Perhaps most significantly, small wind turbines have grown immensely popular in the United States and in New York State. Small wind, or residential-scale, turbines are those with a capacity of 100 kW and under. Recent technological advances in small wind turbines have made them more affordable (approximately $10,000-$12,000 or less, installed) and easier to use. As reported by the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), the U.S. market for small wind turbines grew 78% in 2008. Indeed, the US commands roughly half of the global market share of small wind turbines, and NY and CA are two of seven states with the highest sales percentages of residential-turbines.
These market trends in wind energy are mirrored by trends in innovation. Over the past seven years, issued wind patents in the US increased dramatically from a low of 42 to a high in 2008 of 155. Despite the economic downturn in 2008, the total number of wind patents granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) increased in 2008 over 2007. Although wind patents fell in 1Q 2009 compared to 4Q 2008, wind energy patents were on the rise again in 2Q 2009, and innovations in wind energy have outpaced solar energy.
A review of patent assignees indicates that GE Wind and Aloys Wobben, the owner of Enercon GmbH of Germany, drive the vast majority of the U.S. patent activity in wind energy. For the time period 2002-2008, GE Wind holds the most U.S. patents related to wind energy overall. This finding is consistent with the DOE’s report that GE Wind remains the top wind turbine manufacturer. Due to a steep increase in granted patents to US assignees since 2002, US assignees hold almost half (48%) of the global share of U.S. patents issued between 2002-2008. Germany follows with 19 percent and Japan and Denmark tie for third at 7 percent. New York assignees lead with 16% of the US wind patents thanks to GE Wind, followed by California with 8 percent. Of interest, although Texas dominates all US states in large-scale wind turbine projects, it is not one of the top states when it comes to innovation or small wind sales.
Issued patents are often cited as an indicator of innovation, however, there is an inherent lag caused by the time it takes for a patent application to be reviewed and granted by the USPTO (in some cases, 3-5 years). A review of published patent applications related to wind energy, therefore, can provide insight into what lies ahead. The number of patent applications filed and published since 2007 shows a very steep incline as compared to previous years. Furthermore, of the total patent applications filed since 2002, almost one-half have yet to be granted. Although some of the pending applications will never be granted, based on this data one would expect the upward trend in wind-related patents to continue and become even steeper.
Substantively, a review of issued patents in the US reveals seven general classifications of wind energy patents, including: (1) Design and Construction; (2) Grid/Transmission/Electrical Conversion; (3) Software and Sensors/Control Devices-Systems; (4) Materials; (5) Wind Farms/ Management; (6) Protection From Elements; and (7) Wind Powered Applications. The first category, Design and Construction, makes up more than one-half of all wind innovation. This group can be further divided into four subgroups: Blade Design; Mechanical Design; Rotor Design; and Other Structural Design.
Not surprisingly, some of the more interesting patents are found in the Design & Construction category, many of which are related to small wind. One such patent is the new Swift™ wind turbine, a quiet pole-mountable, rooftop wind turbine, developed by a Scottish company Renewable Devices Swift Turbines Ltd. for use in densely populated areas. (U.S. Patent No. 7,550,864).
The Swift™ design claims to solve a common problem with wind turbines, i.e. noise, by using a circular diffuser that rings the turbine blades. As it looks just like a weather vane, it also is aesthetically pleasing. There are some interesting patent applications pending as well. For example, the “tree-hugger” wind turbine – a cylindrical wind turbine that is hollow and has no central hub. Its tube-like form allows it to be placed around a pre-existing feature such as a chimney stack, cellphone mast or even a tree trunk (Inter. Patent App. PCT/US2008/056105).
Also grabbing a few headlines is Google’s patent directed to a Water Based Data Center (US Patent No. 7,525,207). The patent is directed to a sustainable, giant floating data center, located 3-7 miles offshore, that can be powered and cooled either by wind turbines, ocean waves and/or currents.
Despite the global recession, the AWEA report predicts a 30-fold increase in the small wind US market over the next five years. Although other predictions are more conservative, they too project market growth once the economy bounces back and the economic stimulus policies begin to take effect. If these predictions are accurate, one would also expect technological innovations and patent growth to keep pace. However, what remains to be seen is whether local and regional attempts to curtail the unchecked growth of wind turbines will restrict not only the market, but the incentive for innovation.