Improve Patent Policy – Promote Energy Innovation

America will continue to depend upon innovation in the energy sector. With prices of oil and gas driven down by new technology, increased supply and availability of renewables, the public’s attention to our energy supply has diminished. But America will continue to depend for its security and prosperity on widely available energy, energy innovation, and the products that come from traditional sources of fuel. That is why changes to patent policy matter for America’s future.

Previously, Penley on Education and Energy has focused on the critical role of advances in energy research (See, e.g., Energy Storage Advances in Research). Now renewed attention should be given to potential patent policy changes that may support those advances. On February 15 2015 Representative Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) reintroduced the Innovation Act in the House Judiciary Committee. Today, a follow-up hearing will be held on this important patent legislation. While the primary focus of the legislation continues to be on patent trial proceedings, this is an opportunity to make other important changes to American patent law and the patent process.

Among needed changes are means to increase the speed by which patents are processed and approved. Slowness in patent approval processes inhibits advances in the application of research, discourages innovation and limits American competitiveness. Providing additional revenue to the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is one means to increase the number of patent examiners and encourage the development of needed technology.

Absent increased funding, which would address the problem, there are other potential changes in policy that can be adopted says the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in a late 2014 report, Federal Policies and Innovation. They include giving the USPTO more flexibility in setting its fees. Fees are considered discretionary spending and are therefore subject to the 2011 spending caps. Congressional action could provide flexibility to the USPTO for setting fees and a Congressional appropriation could permit the USPTO to use the revenue it collects from fees for improving and speeding the patent approval process.

Why are changes necessary?

The answer is simple – to improve the application of innovative research. One example comes from research related to energy storage, important for increased use of energy generated by the sun and wind. Among the research in this area is the work of US scientists and engineers on lithium ion batteries. For example, West Virginia University Professors Hui Zhang, Xingbo Liu and their colleagues published research in 2013 on a means for increasing conductivity and decreasing the energy required for a chemical reaction in lithium ion batteries. A related patent is now before the USPTO where patents often languish due to inadequate resources of the USPTO.

But innovation in battery storage and renewables is not the only source of difficulty for American innovation. Recent patent applications include innovations in drilling, analyzing topographical data, separating chemical components of hydrocarbons, etc. These and related innovations affect availability and uses of traditional fossil fuels.

The Innovation Act is worthy of the public’s attention, and today’s hearing is just one step. Introducing needed changes to the USPTO’s patent processing will improve access to America’s innovation.   The Innovation Act before the House Judiciary Committee offers the opportunity. America will continue to depend for its security and prosperity on energy innovation. That is one very important reason for improving our patent policy.

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Advances in Energy Research

The complex nature of our energy future was evident in a recent announcement by the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL).  NETL announced $4.4 million in new research funding for Solid Oxide Fuel Cell Research.  The two primary areas of research are electrochemical performance enhancement and improvements to the durability of cathode materials.  Said the NETL in its announcement of this research:

The SOFCs (solid oxide fuel cells) under development within SECA (Solid State Energy Conversion Alliance) are ideal for use in central generation applications, enabling efficient and economical systems for up to 99 percent carbon capture. They also emit practically no pollutants (nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides) while consuming approximately one-third less water than other advanced power generation technologies. Power plants based on SECA fuel cells and coal gasifiers—units that turn solid coal into gaseous fuel—will generate power with overall efficiencies greater than 50 percent, compared to approximately 25 percent for traditional coal-fired power plants, including CO2 capture processes.

Renewables like wind and solar offer the advantage of a low carbon footprint when compared with traditional fossil fuels.  Among their disadvantages are relatively high costs when compared with traditional fossil sources of energy like oil and their intermittent availability.  That is why I have previously written about the importance of improved energy storage research (see Energy Storage: Advances in Research) if renewables are to gain much ground in our complex mix of energy sources.

Moreover, oil and coal remain readily available for the foreseeable future.  Our reliance on another fossil fuel, natural gas, is increasing rapidly with its widespread availability.  Its increased use is made possible through American technology that is making fracking safe and reliable.  With a lower carbon footprint and declining prices, natural gas is also increasingly becoming the fuel of choice for the generation of electricity used by those new electric vehicles.  But research like that supported by NETL could make coal a more acceptable source of energy as well.

The role of research is significant in not only how it advances our technology but in what it conveys about the complex energy map that we confront on the 21st century.  Having relied primarily in the 20th century on oil, coal and more traditional and ancient sources of energy, the 21st century is likely to appear very different at its close.  It will not, however, be a century of dramatic change.  Fossil fuels are just too inexpensive still and too widely available for that to change.  Moreover, developing countries are aggressively increasing their use of these valuable sources of energy.

While this century is already shaping up to be different from the last in our increased use of renewable energy sources, the mix of their use along with fossil fuels in the latter years of this century will fundamentally depend on the extent to which technology makes renewables cheaper, energy storage more reliable, and fossil fuels cleaner.  Research has already made natural gas the choice for a cleaner fuel from which to generate electricity.  It is likely as well to alter whether coal can be used without some of the atmospheric carbon and health-related aerosol issues that have been raised about it.  Much of our complex energy usage depends on our commitment to continued funding of sound research – by government and business.