SAN JOSE, Calif. Canon, TSMC and Samsung are among the largest patent holders in solar photovoltaic panels, although they have no products in the field today. By contrast, many of the world's biggest producers of solar panels hold relatively few patents on the technology.
That was one conclusion of a 70-page report analyzing U.S. patents in solar technology by Semiconductor Insights, a division of United Business Media, the publisher of EE Times. The report analyzes trends in U.S. solar patents by company and technology.
Patent activity has risen steeply since 1996 when about 25 solar patents were issued a year to 2006 when about 170 patents were awarded, the report found. Canon, TSMC, Sharp and Samsung were the top four patent holders respectively, according to the report which called Samsung "the IP gorilla in this relatively new field."
Samsung has "exploded onto the scene since about 2004," the report said. The company is the top patent holder in the emerging field of dye-sensitized solar cells, "a relatively
new technology with the first activity appearing only 10 years ago, and with potential to provide inexpensive cells in high volume," the report said.
Samsung announced in September it will leverage its LCD business to produce solar panels starting in 2009, but the company has not published a road map for its plans, the report said. "Their patent portfolio suggests they could cover a wide range of PV cell types within the thin film categories [and] they are well represented in the bulk category as well," said the report.
Canon hit the top of the list with 219 patents that read on solar technology. However, many of the patents are primarily aimed at its existing business in semiconductor and flat-panel manufacturing gear with solar cell production a secondary use.
The same is true for TSMC which ranked second in solar patents. "None of our analysis suggests that TSMC is putting any concerted effort directly into the field of photovoltaics," said the report.
"I think that they might eventually use fully depreciated and out of date fab lines to produce solar modules, but will probably license technology to do this in the same way that Suntech Power has licensed technology from the University of New South Wales," said John Boyd, an author of the report.
The report also noted the "conspicuous absence of a long list of major [solar panel] manufacturing players" from the list of top patent holders. Companies such as First Solar, Nanosolar, SunPower and SunTech ranked "well out of the top 15 patent holders," according to the report.
"Perhaps the most notable of these is Q-Cells. Although their corporate strategy appears to be more focused on acquisition than in-house R&D, we did not find any of Q-Cells' acquisitions among the patent assignees," the report said.
The panel makers may be adopting a strategy of getting to market quickly by licensing or acquiring existing technology, the report said. "Surely, they may face big challenges from companies with more solid patent portfolios and who are
savvier when it comes to protecting their intellectual property," it added.
As many as 600 companies are involved in solar panel market, with as many as 60 new companies joining each year since 2000, according to the report. "This has produced an
extremely fragmented market and will no doubt provide many opportunities for consolidation over the next decade," it concluded.