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Will Australia cash in on Cleantech?

Economists predict that the exploitation of clean and sustainable technologies (“cleantech”) has the potential to create wealth on the same scale as the introduction of the railways, electricity, cars and information and IT. But will Australians cash in?

There has been a strong growth in investment in the cleantech sector. The UN estimated a worldwide investment of US$155 billion in 2008 in sustainable energy technologies alone. Cleantech is one of the minority of business sectors that grew in 2008. And the future of Cleantech looks much bigger. China, for example, is considering investing around $560 billion in renewable energy technology. And that is just one country.  The business opportunities in Cleantech are enormous and appear to be growing strongly.

There are some innovative solar technology companies in Australia. The privately held Victorian company Solar Systems has partnered with the Victorian Government to build the world’s largest photovoltaic (PV) power plant near Mildura. Solar Systems developed technology that uses movable mirrors to follow the movement of the sun and concentrate the sunlight onto PV solar cells. Concentrating the sunlight reduces the area of expensive PV solar cells require. This and associated innovations were protected by Solar Systems filing patents around the world, assisted by Griffith Hack. They have done this to protect their technology, which will play a useful role in bringing the technology to the wider market and subsequently reduce the world’s production of greenhouse gases.

Consumers are showing signs of voting with their wallets as well. The latest version of the Toyota Prius has just gone on sale in Japan, and has surprised even Toyota by immediately becoming the top selling car. After just a fortnight of sales, Toyota received 110,000 orders, which compares well with their global sales target of 400,000 per year. Toyota has protected the Prius hybrid technology with more than 1,200 patents around the world.

Owners of technology are often keen to protect their investment with patent protection and thus the number of patent filings tends to track the number of innovations. Unfortunately analysis of recent Australian solar and clean coal patent filing data by Griffith Hack suggests that while leading Australian firms such as Solar Systems are protecting their future, overall there is a relatively low rate of solar and clean coal innovation by Australian firms.

This suggests a future where Australian solar and clean coal energy producers are largely reliant on imported technology. Perhaps Australian firms need to be reminded that in the largest ‘real’ gold rush the world has ever seen, namely the Victorian gold rush in the mid 1800s, some of the largest fortunes were made by equipment suppliers to the miners, rather than the miners themselves.

Having said this, however, Australia has very recently shown invigorated support for commercial climate change mitigation technology. This will significantly boost business opportunities in this sector. In particular, the Federal Government has launched the Australian Solar Institute and the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute (GCCSI). The Solar Institute has funding of $100million over four years for research that shows strong potential for commercial uptake and is expected to include small scale proof-of-concept projects.

An aim of the Institute is to attract the private sector to co-invest and secure rights to develop and commercialise solar technologies. The GCCSI has $100million per annum of federal funding to facilitate and coordinate the demonstration of commercial carbon capture and storage around the world. The Government has also promised in the recent budget a further $2.4billion for low-emissions coal technologies. The GCSI is further backed by the world’s biggest emitters, including the US.

Perhaps Australians will be in a position to once again capitalise on the new cleantech gold rush.

– Justin Blows is a patent attorney for Griffith Hack (www.griffithhack.com.au)

Justin Blows

Justin Blows

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