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US Leads, Europe Second as Wind Industry Spends $430 Million on Patent Protection

Utility scale wind turbines have become so technologically advanced that they have improved the cost of energy (COE) of wind enough to compete with today’s conventional energy sources. The ensuing reduction in COE has been the result of two governing forces: public policy and technological innovation. The technological trends which have emerged thus far and what might be in store for the future direction of wind turbine technology are explored here. Policy and governmental R&D support will continue to be essential, and barriers to wind technology commercialization must be further broken down.

The patent landscape can shed significant insight into what technological trends have emerged thus far and what we might be able to infer for the future direction of wind turbine technology.  The patent landscape analytics, as well as extensive analysis of forward looking competitive intelligence, helps shape our view of future technology trends for the industry.

 

Figure 1 - Analysis Methodology

 The patent search results comprise over 8,665 patent families and over 32,834 global filings from 67 different countries, dating back to the year 1916 when some of the first grid connected technology took root.  In addition to a component and technology keyword classification, an assessment of the relevance of each patent filing to the industry was performed and results were classified as Low, Medium, Medium/High, and High.  The assessment of industry relevance indicates the degree to which the patent owner has asserted their patent rights in the past or would be able to seek licenses or otherwise enforce the patent due to usage of that patent protected technology by their competition.

 

Figure 2 - Industry Relevance Assessment

 With the results grouped by assignee (or patent owner), it should come as no shock to industry watchers who are the top assignees for wind patent filings.  The list largely coincides with the top market share holders in the sector, and the chart below shows the number of patent families held by each company.

 

Figure 3 - Assignees (by Patent Family)

The industry relevance results indicate that only 0.8 percent of issued patents would have a high impact on the entire industry as a whole if those patents were universally asserted, with another 6.9 percent which may become relevant in the future depending on technology evolution and use.  The remaining 92.3 percent of filings are merely providing owners with basic defensive IP protection on technologies they use in their own product lines, but are not widely used in the industry.

All combined, the top 10 turbine OEM patent holders control 54.5 percent of patent filings.  Only 67 patent families out of 8,665 catalogued thus far comprise technology which is broadly applicable to products and services offered commercially within the industry worldwide.

General Electric Company (GE) controls not only the largest number of patent families, but the largest percentage of all wind-related IP with over 15 percent of patent filings.  While most companies are in-line with industry averages in terms of overall portfolio distribution of Low, Medium and High risk filings, GE’s High risk patents as a percentage of their overall portfolio is double the industry average at 1.8 percent vs. 0.8 percent.  Their portfolio also comprises over 35 percent of all High risk patents held by all companies throughout the industry.

 

Figure 4 – Global Wind IP Ownership Share

 Also notable is that top-tier companies have a combined High and Medium/High set of filings which is above the industry average of 7.7 percent.  The top 10 control over 77 percent of Medium/High and 80 percent of High risk patent filings.  This confirms the strong correlation between investment in both R&D and IP protection and the commercial success of top-tier companies.  There is a strong link between the reduced CapEx and optimized energy production resulting from the development and introduction of those patent protected technologies.

The heat map of the filing dates for the patent filings confirms that the majority of filings have occurred in the past decade or so.  Comparison of this trend to turbine capacity additions worldwide is reflective of the shared influence of public policy on technology adoption and the subsequent cost efficiencies enabled by widespread deployment of wind turbines.  IP capture will continue to be an important consideration for top tier companies who are developing and commercializing new products.

Please note that the 2012–2013 filings have not all yet published because of an 18 month window in which the patents are not made public.  Filing count up to 2011 is comprehensive.

 

Figure 5 – Wind Industry Patent Filing Trends (Patent Families)

Countries favored for filing include the U.S., Europe and China, with PCT applications being used heavily in the past few decades. Collectively, the wind industry has spent nearly US $430 million (in 2013 dollars) to date on patent protection across all jurisdictions since 1916. Our projections indicate that the total will exceed $1 billion by 2020 and $2 billion by 2030, with escalation of filing pace assumed to be consistent to that of the past five years.  Annual expenditure will top $100 million per year by 2022.

 

Figure 6 - Global Wind Industry Patent Filing Costs

 

Figure 7 - Global Wind Industry Patent Filings (Top 30 Countries)

The following are what we believe to be the emerging trends in wind turbine technology, and therefore patent protection.

Component Size and Weight Reduction (i.e., maintaining tower head mass ratio) – transportation across land and sea of increasingly heavy components:

  • Advanced materials such as low cost carbon and hybrid fabrics for blades, graphene-based power electronics and alternatives to rare earth magnet materials;
  • Sectional components such as blades and towers;
  • ‘Self-erecting’ capabilities;
  • On-site assembly procedures while maintaining component quality/integrity;
  • Load mitigation tech/controls, especially incorporation of forward-looking capabilities like LIDAR as well as model based controls and anticipatory controls.

Turbine Reliability:

  • Drivetrain/turbine architecture (fewer gearbox stages – move towards medium speed)
    • Elimination of gearbox - direct drive;
    • Gearbox load mitigation utilizing flex-pin architecture;
  • Simplified electrical component design – solid state power electronics.

Fleet Management/O&M:

  • Deployment of condition based maintenance solutions (CBMS) with emphasis on:
    • Calculating component damage accumulation;
    • Calculating remaining useful component/system life;
    • Turbine output optimization based on remaining useful life;
    • Trend analysis of SCADA data;
    • Predictive maintenance scheduling;
    • Spares demand scheduling;
  • Remote inspection technologies:
    • Remotely monitored sensor systems;
    • Wireless data transmission technologies;
    • Optical / video camera based blade tower inspection;
    • Tower climbing inspection "robots";
    • Aerial remote controlled vehicles.

 Performance Optimization:

  • “Maximum energy, all the time”:
    • Optimal energy production regardless of prevailing conditions;
    • Derate / Uprate control capabilities;
    • Active power curtailment while maintaining wind farm local grid stability.
  • Site-specific design and assessment tools – modularity of component design and the ability to have multiple options for hub height and rotor size mean more opportunities exist for a common platform architecture to serve a particular wind site regardless of variation in average sped and wind shear;
  • Integration of turbine controls with the condition monitoring system (CMS);
  • Blade aero / structural performance – flaps, vortex generators, plasma actuators.

Grid Friendly:

  • SCADA and power plant controls – ensuring wind parks operate much like conventional energy plants today, where output can be throttled and grid fluctuations can be absorbed, etc;
  • Multi-level, medium voltage converters/electrical system components;
  • Enhanced LVRT and VAR support;
  • Energy storage for time shifting, black start and grid smoothing;
  • Mitigation of grid harmonics and sub-synchronous inductance;

Offshore:

  • Custom installation vessels and methods;
  • Load mitigating foundations – floating, jacket, monopile, suction bucket and gravity base;
  • Co-generating foundation structures.

To keep reducing COE there will need to be enormous R&D expenditure to get even a 5–10 percent improvement going forward, due to diminishing returns being reached in turbine CapEx. 

 

 Figure 8 - Wind Industry Technology Maturity Trend

Another factor which contributes significantly to the commercialization gap are project financiers who do not incentivize the development and introduction of new technologies and products due to the associated technical and commercial risks. This leaves turbine OEMs and key component suppliers to vendor-fund prototypes, form JVs, partner with developers/customers or seek external investment.  All of those options can be expensive propositions, and are likely more suited to the domain of the larger industrial conglomerates.

Images courtesy Totaro and Associates

Lead image: Wind turbines in field, via Shutterstock

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