Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Something new under the Sun? Photovoltaics patents take the limelight

Media coverage of Tesla’s offer to acquire SolarCity last week was largely focused on the complications of the deal created by conflicts of interest due to Elon Musk’s overlapping roles as Tesla’s CEO and Chairman of SolarCity. This deal does however also show the growing role and importance of solar power as a source for renewable energy. This example is especially strong, with Tesla representing a shifting industry that relies heavily on finite resources. With photovoltaics in the spotlight, this Cipher Snapshot aims to explore the field and map out key players and trends in the market.

Figure 1 gives a snapshot of the market, looking at size and growth rate from the past three years. Sharp stands out as leading the pack on portfolio size by a large margin.  However its portfolio is declining, enabling other companies to take the lead. German and some American companies exhibit incumbent behaviour with relatively large portfolios and low growth rates. Most momentum is exhibited by DelSolar and Hanwha Techwin (Taiwanese and Korean companies respectively). They have medium-sized portfolios with high growth rates closing in on the IP leaders.

Figure 2 shows granted and pending patent families held by the different companies. Sharp, Bosch and Schott hold the most patents, but have very different portfolio compositions in terms of the granted/pending split. Excluding Sharp, German companies seem to have the biggest pipelines in absolute terms with Bosch, Schott, SMA and SolarWorld having substantial pipelines.

In Figure 3 we can see Photovoltaics patenting activity broken up into two technologies; Solar cells” (the actual make-up of the cells) and “System” (cells combined with batteries, converters, power management etc.). Overall, filing activity hit a high between 2009 and 2011. Solar cell patenting exhibits strong fluctuation throughout the years with the highest filing activity in 2009. System patents show a steadier and slightly positive development in activity with the exception of 2011 when system filings massively surged.

Combining companies and technologies, Figure 4 shows the companies’ share size and its growth/decline in the past five years. Although previous charts showed a general increase in patenting, this view shows that there has been a change in terms of who is growing most, when comparing the players relative to each other.

Among the large players, Sharp and Schott Solar stand out with declining share of the patents relative to the rest while Bosch is evenly split technology-wise and growing in both areas. The greatest growth can be found among the smaller Chinese and Asian companies.

Table 1 explores the companies’ territorial coverage and we see widely different strategies. Chinese and US companies mainly pursue their home territory. German and Asian (non-Chinese) companies, on the other hand, have a broad geographic profile with strong coverage in the US, favouring it ahead of their respective home markets. This is surprising as it goes against common Asian company pattern of quite narrow home market protection.

The activity in the photovoltaics market shows global momentum, with German, Asian and American companies playing for pole position. Sharp is a strong leader but the rest of the field is closing in. Other Asian companies such as DelSolar and Hanwha Techwin are making up a lot of ground with geographically broad patent portfolios.

Whatever the outcome, we can be certain that the increased global competition we see in the photovoltaics market will drive further innovation in this sector.

This Cipher Snapshot can also be accessed from the Aistemos website here.

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