Clean Tech Patent Survey finds Asia in the Lead, Europe lagging

This year for the first time, IEEE Spectrum magazine has published a patent survey that focuses specifically on intellectual property bearing on the future of clean tech. The findings are rather dramatic: Of the 50 companies identified as clean-tech leaders by Spectrum and its partner 1790 Analytics, 24 are based in Asia and 22 in the United States; just three are European, and one Canadian.

That's a startling finding, considering that in the last two decades of the twentieth century and well into this one, Germany--together with several other European countries--clearly led the way in alternative energy technology, the United States having pretty much forfeited the field, after some pioneering first efforts during the Carter administration. The current survey covers just 2009, so it does not take into account accumulated patent power from decades of clean tech R&D. But even so, it points to a dramatic shift in prowess--when it comes to the technologies that will shape the world's future economies--from Europe to Asia.

What qualified as clean tech in the Spectrum-1790 analysis? "After scouring Spectrum’s news archives for the most talked-about technologies with potential for generating power without polluting the environment, we selected eight candidates: batteries, clean coal, fuel cells, geothermal energy, hybrid vehicles, hydropower, solar energy, and wind energy," report the authors, Patrick Thomas and Anthony Breitzman.

That's a good list, but everybody will have their reservations, myself included. In the spirit of airchair generalmanship, had I made the list, I would have skipped geothermal and hydro, in favor of mass transportation, on the one hand, and manufacturing equipment and industrial process technology, on the other.

As I see it, geothermal is simply too niche and too far off to be of much pressing interest. Mass, transit, however, is the greenest of transportation technologies. Experts may quibble about whether electric and hybrid-electric vehicles yield net energy and carbon savings, but there's no doubt that to the extent travelers can be lured from cars onto trains, substantial efficiencies result.

Hydroelectricity generally is classified as carbon-free, like nuclear power, but hydro's alleged carbon neutrality is more seriously open to question: Plants thrive in the huge lakes behind big dams, and when they rot, they release methane, a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Still more to point, perhaps: How much really innovative technology can there be in dams, really?

Improving the energy efficiency of manufacturing equipment and processes, however, is perhaps the single most important way to green advanced industrial and fast-industrializing economies. And these technologies, as it happens, are just those in which the most technically advanced European countries--Germany and France, especially--excel. So if this category had been included, however amorphous and unwieldy it might appear, the effect surely would have been to boost Europe in the CleanTech50 rankings.

But this is a quibble. It's true that Germany and France are not much concerned about their trade balance with China today because they're busily providing its infrastructure. For them, China is as much an opportunity as a problem. But this situation is not going to last for ever. Not long from now China's basic infrastructure will be complete, it will have acquired key technology as part of the hard bargains its always strikes with companies like Siemens and Alstom--and then, if the Spectrum-1790 assessment of clean tech patent power is right, China's going to be a big problem for Europe too.

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