Groundbreaking Research Identifies IP Arms Race in Wind

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A new research report published at EWEA 2013 by consultancy Totaro & Associates has catalogued over 27,500 global patent filings related to horizontal-axis, utility-scale wind turbine technology. Totaro & Associates CEO and Principal, Philip Totaro says that, “We estimate there are ~45,000 to 50,000 global filings in total, and we are continuing our research to catalogue and evaluate them all.”

Arms Race

The top patent holders in wind are no surprise. GE, Vestas, Siemens, Mitsubishi, Enercon and Gamesa control almost 50% of all global patent filings. Totaro goes on to say that, “Other Tier 1 global turbine manufacturers, such as Sinovel and Goldwind are gaining ground, but historically, they have filed their patents exclusively in China.”

Patent filings are up sharply across the entire industry since 2006, largely due to increased spending on research and development as well as intellectual property (IP) protection. “It seems like there is an IP arms race currently underway in wind,” says Totaro. The IP ‘Cold War’ has turned hot over the past 10 years with legal proceedings throughout the world over intellectual property rights between AMSC and Sinovel, GE and Mitsubishi, GE and Enercon as well as Enercon and Vestas, plus other non-public IP license and cross-license arrangements.

Risky Business

According to Totaro, “Our analysis has shown that only about 1% of issued patents are a high impact on the products and services currently offered by the industry as a whole, with another 7% which may become relevant in the future depending on technology adoption. The remaining 92% of global patent filings are merely providing companies with basic defensive IP protection on their own distinct technologies, products and service offerings.”

While most companies appear to be in-line with industry averages in terms of overall patent portfolio distribution of low, medium and high risk filings, GE seems to stand out. GE’s high risk patent filings as a percentage of their overall portfolio, are double the industry average at 1.9% vs. 0.9%. GE’s patent portfolio also comprises over 36% of all high risk patents throughout the industry, showing a concerted effort to gain a tactical advantage through capturing and aggressively enforcing IP rights. Meanwhile, the rest of the industry is trying to catch up.

Technology Trends

In assessing the technology trends apparent from the research, the report indicates that component developments have historically been directed towards blades, gearboxes, generators and electrical systems, with newer filings directed towards controls and a continuing focus on blade performance enhancements. Totaro says that, “The blades, drivetrain and electrical systems were the problem children in terms of component reliability in the past, so they needed the most attention; the most improvement; the most innovation.”

Technology developments have historically been directed towards component reliability, torque / speed control, frequency / voltage regulation, performance optimization and load mitigation, with newer filings directed towards manufacturing, construction and O&M. Totaro continues, “The manufacturing revolution, particularly with the move towards longer blades for both on and offshore has driven a substantial amount of innovation.”

Looking towards the future, the report offers several areas to watch out for including blade manufacturing automation, materials such as hybrid fabrics for blades and graphene for power electronics, anticipatory and load mitigating controls, energy storage integration, VAR and ancillary services support, HVDC technology as well as condition monitoring / SCADA data analysis for predictive maintenance and spares scheduling.

Totaro states that “Out of all the future technology trends, we have long said that materials science will have the single greatest impact on further reductions in wind turbine and sub-component CapEx. But, as O&M costs have continued to escalate, the industry is shifting focus to services, particularly since turbine sales have dropped as of late.”

Technology Deployment Gap

Although, when it comes to deployment of these new technologies, Totaro cautions that a gap exists, “We presently see a commercialization gap amongst technologies being investigated and those actually being deployed. We believe this is due to project financiers not incentivizing the development and introduction of new technologies and products because of associated technical and commercial risks. These risks can now be better quantified and mitigated through tools which have been recently developed in the industry; such as the patent infringement risks which can now be mitigated through our IP risk profiles.”

Totaro concludes, “Protection of intellectual property rights will continue to be a hot-button issue for years to come, and the deployment of new technology will be crucial for the industry to achieve sustainable cost parity with other energy sources.”

The full report is available here.

Eric Lane is a patent attorney at McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP in San Diego and the author of Green Patent Blog. Mr. Lane can be reached at elane@mckennalong.com

About Author

Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.