By Aaron Barker
The Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA) reported that the U.S. solar market grew 67% in value in 2010. We have also noticed that the amazing growth in the solar industry is reflected in U.S. patent activity. Because the solar industry covers a wide range of technologies, we looked at a simple example of issued U.S. patents that include the word “solar” in the title. We found that the number of “solar” patents increased 42% in 2009 and 73% in 2010. The chart below shows that the number of “solar” patents was relatively flat during most of the 1990s (hitting a low of 106 patents), increased during 1999-2003 (228 patents), dipped during 2004-2005 to 1998 levels (126 patents), and rose slightly during 2006-2008 to 2004 levels (170 patents). There were 242 patents in 2009 and 419 patents in 2010.
Using broad categories for the “solar” patents that issued in 2010, we estimate that 142 patents cover solar cell technologies, 109 patents cover solar powered devices or systems, 63 patents cover solar panel assemblies, 43 patents cover solar heating or cooling, 18 patents cover power plant technologies, and 17 patents cover mounting or packaging technologies.
The increase in solar-related patent activity is consistent with an increase in overall U.S. patent activity. In the recently published Oregon Patent Report for 2008-2010, intellectual property attorneys at Stoel Rives reported that the number of patents issued to corporate and individual inventors in Oregon rose a healthy 18.1%, compared with drops of 7.5% in 2009 and 4.4% in 2008. Nationally, the number of patents awarded to all U.S. inventors in 2010 rose 27.5%, compared with only a 3.3% increase in 2009 and a 1.8% drop in 2008. Thus, in addition to strong growth in the overall U.S. solar market, at least some of the increase in solar patent activity in 2010 may be attributed to a general increase in companies using the patent system to protect their innovations, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s push to reduce a mountainous backlog, and an uptick in the number of patent applications filed just before the recent economic downturn.