Even without environmental regulation, wind power is now one of the cheapest options for new power generation in many parts of the United States.

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Clean energy patent slump in U.S. stirs concern

A surge in innovation tied to low-carbon energy technologies is showing signs of tapering off in the United States, at a time when the Trump administration is targeting the field for cuts in government research spending.

The number of patents issued in fields related to cutting carbon emissions climbed from 15,970 in 2009 to approximately 35,000 in 2014 and 2015, before slipping back slightly to about 32,000 in 2016, according to a new report issued today by the Washington, D.C.–based Brookings Institution.

It’s too soon to know whether this short-term drop is part of a bigger trend, says Devashree Saha, the study’s lead author and an associate fellow at Brookings. But it could be compounded by a push from the new president to pare back spending on renewable energy research, she says. “That, I think, raises a lot of concerns as to what is going to be the future of cleantech innovation in the next few years."

Patents can serve as a handy metric for innovation, because they track new inventions their creators think are economically valuable enough to patent. By that measure, the years from 2001 to 2009 were relatively staid for clean energy, as patents issued each year hovered around 15,000, according to the study. Saha and her fellow researchers counted patents related to a number of energy fields, including solar, wind, energy storage, energy efficiency, and nuclear power.

Beginning in 2010, however, things took off, climbing steadily for 5 years. During that time, the growth in patents issued in clean tech fields outpaced patents overall, and also outpaced high-tech fields including pharmaceuticals, biotechnology and semiconductors, according to the report.

One likely reason for the shift was an injection of federal research dollars, including an infusion to help recover from the 2008 recession, and Obama administration initiatives to boost research in renewable energy, says Jesse Jenkins, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Energy Initiative in Cambridge.

The federal recovery act pumped $3.3 billion into research and development at the Department of Energy (DOE), including a significant chunk for renewable energy–related work. The Obama administration also funded the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), the $290 million program to push “moonshot” energy technologies into commercialization. Research spending through the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy averaged $1 billion per year under Obama, $100 million more annually than under former President George W. Bush.

But David Hart, an energy policy expert at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia, cautions that other forces were probably crucial. It can take years for research spending to translate into patent applications, and for the patents to be issued. Hart suspects much of the credit for the patent boom lies with growth in private industry, spurred in part by government regulations to encourage more clean energy, such as tax credits and state-level renewable energy quotas. He also questions whether anything can be concluded from the downturn in clean energy patents in the last year.

Saha, the study’s author, agrees that federal spending doesn’t explain all of the bump. In addition to growing corporate investment, in 2011 Congress also passed legislation to streamline the patent process, which could have resulted in more patents being issued, she notes.

All three, however, agree the Trump administration could have an impact on the direction of such energy innovation. The president’s so-called “skinny” budget, for instance, would cut DOE’s energy-related research by 44% and eliminate ARPA-E. And Hart worries that some clean energy technologies, such as more efficient electrical grids and devices that can store intermittent solar and wind power, are still in an early stage where private investment alone won’t bring them to fruition. “They may have enough momentum on their own” to make it to market, he says. “But I think there is still an important role for the government.”