Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi

Clean-Energy Patents Are Headed for a Record

And that's before 20 countries just agreed to double their R&D.

This week, 20 of the world’s biggest economies and 28 of its top private investors committed unprecedented stacks of money to basic research and development for new clean-energy technologies. What makes the deals especially interesting is that they address an industry that's already exploding with new ideas

The chart below shows U.S. patents granted for clean energy since 2002, from the Clean Energy Patent Growth Index. The number of annual patents has increased fivefold since 2002 and this year is on track to break another record after eight consecutive increases. Most patents in 2015 have been for solar technologies—586 granted in the first half of the year—followed by fuel cells, electric vehicles, and wind power.  

Annual patents granted in the U.S.

Annual patents granted in the U.S.

Data Source: Heslin Rothenberg Farley & Mesiti P.C., 2015 estimated by Bloomberg

Patents for clean energy soared as solar and wind power took off and competition intensified. Patents are a sign of interest and innovation, but research breakthroughs often run up against a wall of costs and institutional inertia in getting them to market.

That's where the new funds come in, announced Monday at world climate talks in Paris. In a project dubbed Mission Innovation, 20 countries responsible for 80 percent of the world's energy R&D agreed to double their annual spending. That amounts to roughly $10 billion in new annual funding by 2020.  

Separately, Bill Gates announced a new pool of money from big private-sector investors, including other billionaires and deep-pocketed institutions such as the University of California. The group, called the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, hasn't put up a specific funding goal, though it will reportedly start with several billion dollars.

The shift to cleaner energy is already under way, with wind, solar, and battery power beginning to compete with fossil fuels on cost. It's now a trillion-dollar race for the best ideas, and the research funding announced this week will only speed things up.