After years of doom and gloom, a new optimism is building in the renewable energy sector. Clean technology research, both public and private, is again on the rise and commercial-scale projects are being commissioned. By Ray Tettman.

Historically, renewable energy technologies could not compete with conventional fossil fuels and were reliant on government subsidies to be competitive. However, continuous innovation and economies of scale have driven down the cost of at least the more mature clean technologies, such as wind and solar, to the extent they are now near parity with conventional electricity production.

Another perceived obstacle to large-scale implementation of wind and solar farms is the variable nature of these energy sources. However, fast developing energy storage technologies are addressing this obstacle.

A world-first large-scale solar farm with integrated battery storage is being built in the Lakeland region of north Queensland. The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA)’s CEO Ivor Frischnecht has said: “Battery storage will play a critical role in our future energy systems. The benefit of adding batteries to solar farms is simple; they store energy from the sun for use at peak times and overnight. They can also smooth solar energy output on cloudy days”.

One of Australia’s first “Tesla towns” is being built on a former paper mill site in the Melbourne suburb of Alphington. The project will include 60 homes fitted with Tesla battery packs and solar panels as a standard inclusion, not an optional extra.

Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, opened the Tesla Gigafactory on 29 July. The Gigafactory will be the world’s largest producer of lithium ion batteries, not only for Tesla electric vehicles but also for stationary energy storage, like the battery packs used in the Alphington Tesla town.

Tesla made intellectual property (IP) news headlines in June 2014 when it open-sourced its considerable number of patents relating to its electric vehicles and battery technologies. This move was viewed skeptically at the time by commentators and investors, because it went against conventional wisdom that dictates that technology start-up companies must protect their R&D using patents.

Tesla, however, is different to other technology companies because it really has no viable competitors and, as such, making its patents available for everyone to use is actually good business. According to Musk, Tesla and other electric car companies will all benefit from a common, rapidly-evolving technology platform.

A larger market helps spread the cost of building the vehicle charging infrastructure necessary to establish wide-scale adoption of plug-in electric vehicles, and also leads to a de facto standardisation on the Tesla battery format and charging system.

However, not all clean-tech companies are in Tesla’s enviable position of having no viable competitors. These companies generally rely on patents to protect their R&D, especially if their product is easily reverse engineered and thus not protectable by trade secrets.

The filing of patent applications is often cited as being an indicator of innovation, at least for technologies considered commercially important. According to Australian Patent Office statistics, the total number of patent applications filed in Australia grew a modest 12% over the 10-year period 2006-15.

However, the number of patent applications for systems that supply, store or distribute electric power increased by 342% in Australia over the same period, and 411% internationally. Battery charging and electrically-powered vehicle propulsion systems also experienced substantial growth rates internationally, with both increasing 450%.

In the somewhat niche clean energy field of wave power, the rise in Australian innovation is even more dramatic, with Australian patent activity increasing by 625% over the ten-year period, with 79% of the published applications naming Australian inventors. This is set against an international increase of 215% over the same period.

One example of an innovative Australian company in this field is Bombora Wave Power. The company was founded in 2012 and is located in Perth. Its innovative mWave converters deliver environmentally friendly, large-scale energy for national electricity grids, and can be deployed in coastal locations throughout the world.

The mWave converters harness wave energy in the form of pressure on the sea floor. Waves passing over rubber membranes cause air within the membranes is be squeezed into a duct and then though a turbine. The turbine spins a generator to produce electricity. This innovative arrangement greatly reduces the risks associated with surviving extreme storms and enables a simpler and more cost effective design.

The concept for the Bombora converter began in 2007 with founding engineers Glen Ryan and Shawn Ryan. The two brothers initially built and tested a small-scale mWave prototype device using a tractor to generate waves in a swimming pool-sized tank. They filed an international patent application in 2012 and progressed to mid-scale trials in the Swan River near Perth in 2015. In 2016 the company completed a feasibility study for a 60MW wave farm in Portugal, where a full-scale installation is planned for 2017.

Not only are Australian innovators getting excited, Australian investors are also optimistic. The Australian CleanTech Index, which provides a measure of the performance of about 60 listed clean-tech stocks, significantly outperformed the wider market for the full 2015-16 financial year. The Index recorded a strong gain for the year of 21.3%, compared to the ASX200’s loss of 4.3%. This capped off a stellar three years for the Index with returns of nearly 70% for investors.

Finally, there seems to be a renewed confidence for Australian clean-tech innovators and investors.

Ray Tettman is a Principal, Patent and Trade Marks Attorney at Watermark Intellectual Asset Management.