Green Energy

Publication Date08 December 2021
SubjectEnvironment, Intellectual Property, Energy and Natural Resources, Energy Law, Oil, Gas & Electricity, Patent, Climate Change
Law FirmHaseltine Lake Kempner LLP
AuthorGreg Sharp

With a growing number of extreme weather events happening around the world in 2021, climate change is high on the public agenda. Climate scientists have stated that, for example, the extreme temperatures seen across the US and Canada in June 2021 would be "virtually impossible" without global warming. One way in which climate change can be combatted is the development and implementation of novel technologies for generating the ever-increasing amount of energy needed by the world's population in a more climate-friendly way.

The Holy Grail of green energy is widely regarded as nuclear fusion because it has the potential to generate huge amounts of energy with little to no environmental impact. It was reported this August that the Nuclear Ignition Facility in the US is on the verge of 'ignition'. This is a key milestone on the road to generating useable energy by nuclear fusion, where the energy released by fusion of the fuel exceeds the energy supplied to 'kick-start' the fusion process. If ignition can be achieved, it is thought that the fusion reaction can be made self-sustaining, which in turn paves the way to the generation of essentially limitless, clean energy from commonly-available fuels like hydrogen.

While this is promising, the practicalities of commercialising nuclear fusion - which currently requires extremely expensive and complex apparatus and temperatures exceeding those in the centre of the Sun - mean that large-scale fusion-based generation won't be achieved for some time yet. The current lack of practicable fusion-based generators is reflected in the relatively small number of patent applications in this field. According to the EPO's Espacenet database, only around 287 patent applications for fusion reactor technology were published in 2020. In contrast, over 2,400 applications for fission reactor technology were published in 2020, and nearly 10,000 for wind energy technologies.

So, if fusion reactors are not going to meet the remaining electricity demands any time soon, where might this electricity come from?

The good news on this front is that there are plenty of other green energy technologies1 which are already technically and commercially viable, and which are growing in consumer uptake and technical sophistication. Furthermore, the use of these more mature green energy sources is continually increasing year on year. According to the UK Government's figures, renewable energy accounted for over 40% of electricity generation in the UK...

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