From the monthly archives:

January 2010

Photovoltaic Solar Cells – Patents in Europe

by Rob Harrison on 6 January 2010

There’s an interesting news report over at EE Times Asia on the patent side of photovoltaic panels. Citing a report by Canadian company Semiconductor Insights EE Times notes. The report is US-centric and so I took the opportunity to see if there was any special European angles.  Germany has been very much in the lead in promoting solar energy. The 1990 “Stomeinspeisungsgesetz” (Act on feeding electricity into the grid) was the first to introduce the concept of small-scale producers of electricity from renewable sources having the right to feed in electricity into the web. This was amended slightly in 2000 as the  Renewable Energy Sources Act (a link to an English translation can be found here). The law has become a model around Europe and the world.

The 1990 act stimulated the development of solar technology in Germany and one might have expected German companies to massively profit from the scheme. Indeed Q-Cells, based in Bitterfeld in the former East Germany, benefitted massively and has today become one of the leading suppliers of photvoltaic panels in 2008 (see the Wikipedia article for further information).

Another German company, SiC Processing was listed in the 1998 Guardian/Library House’s CleanTech 100 as one of top 10 companies (see here)

The interesting question for me was to look at the IP protection on the products. Clearly there may be a lot of processing knowledge that companies would chose to protect as trade secrets and not through patents. However, given that the panels can be found on many rooftops and also in do-it-yourself stores, one might expect many innovations to be the subject of patents.

Intriguingly, I was only able to identfy 19 families of published patent applications for Q-Cells. There may be more in the pipline, but that seems a small number for a companies whose balance sheet at the end of December 2008 showed intangible assets with a value of  EUR 48.4 Million

SiC Processing held a single patent – filed initially in Italy in 2005. This was more on recyling than on solar cells itself.

I thought it intriguing to see how this fits into the patent protection of other companies in this technical space. Using the most popular European Classifications from the Q-Cells portfolio, a worldwide search of patent applications showed Japanese companies (Canon, Sanyo, Sharp and Matsushita) dominating the photovoltaic landscape. The first European organisation was the German contract research organisation Fraunhofer Gesellschaft in fifth place. This correlates with the report in EE Times which identified the predominance of Asian companies in the space

The Japanese patent system encourages multiple applications by domestic applicants which tend to be combined when filed outside of Japan. It tends to overemphasise the contributions of Japanese companies when worldwide statistics are used. I therefore limited the search to only patents filed or pending in Europe and identified that Sanyo and Sharp still occupied top spots (first and second with respectively 49 and 47 out of a total 1590). Du Pont came in third place followed by Canonl in fourth pace and Sharp in fifth place. The Fraunhofer Gesellschaft had 26 patents or applications  in total and were in tenth place. Q-Cells only had seven patents or applications using this set of data (which is the most relevant for solar cell photovoltaic panels).

What conclusions can we draw from this? Intriguingly the Japanese companies are putting an increasing amount of research and development work into developing a substantial photovoltaic patent portfolio and clearly in terms of numbers are overtaking German companies in the European marketplace. However, the commercial activities of Japanese companies are much more limited. It is possible that much of the innovation taking place in Europe is on processing matters which is more appropriate to trade secret protection – as you do not want after all to let your competitors know how the silicon is being processed.

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