Thursday, February 6, 2014

Oh, patents! Clean energy, what’s clean?

Copyright © Françoise Herrmann


Clean energy releases energy without burning.  Sun, water and wind are examples of clean energy. Traditional fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) all burn to release energy that includes pollution and gasses which become trapped in the atmosphere creating a greenhouse effect and the ensuing global warming. Clean energy is also renewable… 

Clean, green and renewable… remember that… 
 Below, examples of these clean, green and renewable technologies are provided:

Solar energy: There are various patented technologies used to capture solar energy, including both active and passive technologies. Active technologies include photovoltaic panels designed to transform sunlight into energy. Passive technologies include for example building and construction systems, working with shade and sunlight, orientation and building materials to capture (isolate or reflect) the sun’s energy.

A search for photovoltaic patents at the EPO yielded 2249 patents! The following are a few sample 2014 PV patent applications, excluding the patented monitoring or installation technologies.
US2014032178 (A1) Systems and methods for solar photovoltaic design.
US2014021793 (A1) Inverter system for photovoltaic power generation
US2014015325 (A1) Systems for optimized solar power inversion
US2013342389 (A1) Self mapping photovoltaic array-system
EP2675035 (A1) Photovoltaic power system with generation modules and method of controlling output power thereof.

Hydro energy: This is water captured and transformed into electricity at hydroelectric power plants using a dam. The technology subsumes channeling water through a turbine which spins the water, in turn activating a generator which produces electricity.

A search for “hydro generators” patents at the EPO yielded 1684 patents. Here are a few of them:
US2014028028 (A1) Free-flow hydro-powered turbine system
EP2687715 (A1) Underwater hydro turbine generator
US2013257057 (A1) Hydro-electric energy generation and storage structure
US2013187386 (A1) Deep water hydro-electric power system
WO2013126519 (A1) Hydro-turbine generator

Hydro (ocean) energy: The ocean produces two types of energy: mechanical energy from tides and waves and thermal energy from the sun. Various systems exist to convert the ocean’s thermal energy to electricity, including vaporizing the warm surface waters of the ocean and using the vapor to activate turbines and a generator. Tides are caused by the moon’s gravitational forces, and waves are caused by the wind. Various technologies exist to harness the mechanical energy of the ocean including dams that channel water to turbines, which in turn feed into a generator that creates electricity.

 A search on “ocean wave energy” yields 1233 patents! Here are a few of them:
NZ591329 (A) Improvements in ocean wave energy extraction  
NZ598207 (A) Wave energy conversion apparatus and method  
AU2012262997 (A1) Wave energy converter  
CA2831560 (A1) Wave energy converter and transmission  
CA141974 (S) Turbine device for generating electricity from ocean currents    
CA2801045 (A1)  Ocean or sea power plant

Wind energy: Windmills have been harnessing the wind’s energy for grinding grain and pumping water for centuries in Holland and on windmill farms in the US. The modern day windmill is a turbine used for generating electricity. Blades are mounted on a shaft, high above the ground to capture less turbulent wind and to feed into a generator to produce electricity.

Reflecting centuries of design in this domain, a search for “wind turbine” at the EPO yielded a whopping 26,212 patents! Here is a modern day selection, including a British hinge patent for turbine blades and a method of controlling pitch systems for wind turbines:

US2014003943 (A1) Wind turbine
WO2013176569 (A1) Wind energy installation with hydraulic drive
US2014023514 (A1) Wind turbine, rotor blade components and methods of making same
US2014023500 (A1) Vertical axis wind and hydraulic turbine with flow control
US2014017080 (A1) Wind turbine, wind farm and method for generating power
US2014017081 (A1)  Method for controlling pitch systems of a wind turbine
GB2504459 (A) Hinge for wind turbine blades  

Clean, green and renewable… Yes!
But, there’s also bleeding between the categories…. Permeability that serves to obscure the clear differences in energy sources and properties …. Energies called “clean” that are less sparkling, hardly renewable, and a distant shade of green – bioenergy for example.

Bio energy: Biofuel and biopower is energy sourced from biomass, also called plant fuel. Biomass fodder is the organic matter, derived from wood, certain fast growing plants, algae, organic compounds from municipal waste and agricultural residues, used for the production of biofuel, biopower or biopropducts, otherwise typically made from petroleum (or hydrocarbons).

Biomass is indeed the color green because it consists of organic green plant matter, but it must be burned to produce energy and it is hardly renewable. In fact, according to the ETC group: “Burning biomass can release more CO2 than fossil fuels… because much more biomass needs to be burnt to achieve the same energy output” (p.74).

Biomass is “clean” too –as long as it consists of un-harvested and un processed plants. But once burning to produce fuel, dry wood biomass fuel, for example, ranks much higher than natural gas, ethanol, jet fuel or motor gasoline in terms of the CO2 emissions it generates when burning (ETC, 2011 – CO2 Emission from different fuel types, p. 74.)

So, careful now… not everything that’s green is the same shade of green… nor is it necessarily clean….



ETC Group (2011). Earth Grab: Geopiracy, the New Biomassters, and Capturing Climate Genes. Oxford, UK: Pambazuka Press.
European Patent Office:

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