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The Biden administration’s plan to boost climate innovation: Patents

Protocol Climate

A happy Tuesday to you, Protocol Climate friends. It’s a big week for executive climate action: The Biden administration is trying to speed up climate innovation and not slow down solar. Let’s dive in, shall we?

Patents not pending

Innovation alone isn’t going to solve the climate crisis. But it sure could help. And the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is trying to ensure it happens at a faster clip.

The government is fast-tracking patents that protect the climate. President Joe Biden promised an “all-of-government approach” to climate change, and the USPTO is taking that to heart.

  • A new pilot program from the agency will speed up the patent review process for technology that can help reduce emissions. The program is already up and running for the next year, or until it grants 1,000 petitions.
  • The agency said the pilot is “intended to encourage research, development and innovation in the climate space and provide ready and equitable intellectual property protection to incentivize investment and bring those solutions to the country and world.”
  • While we already have a good chunk of the tech needed to save us from climate doom, there’s always room for improvement, from new types of batteries to carbon dioxide removal.
  • Speeding up the patent process could help commercialize some of those new technologies faster.

But it’s not clear this will work as intended. Joshua Sarnoff, an IP expert at DePaul University, told me that it’s ““highly uncertain” whether a program like this can meaningfully help get climate tech to market. “Filing a patent application doesn’t delay any inventor from manufacturing and selling products before a patent issues,” He said.

  • He pointed to a similar program in the halcyon days of 2010 that “achieved the desired result of expediting processing of patent applications.” But whether it got more products to market is another issue entirely, let alone if the system itself led to more innovation.
  • Caoimhe Ring, a Ph.D. candidate at Oxford studying innovation in times of crisis, said other countries also have similar programs in place. The U.K. started one in 2009, and they exist from Australia to South Korea to Canada.
  • She said the program will likely “have a limited impact on getting most climate tech to market” outside “fast-moving industries or ‘hot topic’ breakthroughs” like hydrogen fuel cells.

The program may appeal to the venture capital ecosystem. For startups seeking funding, a patent is a way to entice VCs to invest. But that alone doesn’t mean the pilot will be effective. If the Biden administration wants to turn its all-of-government approach to climate innovation, it could start with analyzing the best use of federal resources to develop and deploy carbon-cutting technology.

  • Ring suggested lowering the costs of patents for smaller companies to help speed up the VC process and improve collaboration and technology transfer, which will be key, since the climate doesn’t care who’s emitting carbon where.
  • But whether the VC process is our best bet for innovation — let alone clean tech innovation — is very much up for debate.
  • Sarnoff said the government could identify the best pathways for development: “[N]o one has done any meaningful analysis of which institutions work best for what — or would work best for what — if we changed our political economy.”
  • He suggested a Department of Innovation as a potential hub for decision-making around how, where and how much to invest. That sounds cool as hell, but Sarnoff admitted that “the political reality of entrenched interests and existing ‘fiefdoms’” means it’s probably “never going to happen.”

Sadly, the climate doesn’t really care about those fiefdoms.

— Brian Kahn(email | twitter)

The Biden administration fights itself on solar

The hottest solar tariff drama in all the land came to a head Monday when President Biden announced he would offer a two-year tariff reprieve on solar panels made in Southeast Asia. (OK, this is the only solar tariff drama in all the land right now, but it’s still a big deal.)

This tariff reprieve has been months in the making. The fight over Southeast Asian solar panels began in March when the Commerce Department began investigating the region’s solar suppliers over alleged ties to China.

  • Auxin Solar, a California-based solar supplier, requested the investigation because it claimed Chinese companies were circumventing U.S. tariffs by assembling solar panels in Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.
  • As the investigation unfolded, seemingly everyone got mad. The solar industry’s trade group said the uncertainty kicked up by the investigation would slow installations, and 85 Democratic lawmakers begged the administration to intervene.
  • Some of those concerns turned out to be well-founded: At least one utility has already cited the Commerce Department probe as a reason for pushing the retirement date for two coal plants.

Would-be Southeast Asian solar panel buyers can now breathe easier. The two-year tariff exemption allows the Commerce Department investigation to go on, but it means there’s no risk of retroactive tariffs dinging buyers.

  • The move will also give the domestic solar industry time to ramp up output capacity while the U.S. continues to pursue its overall solar capacity goals.
  • Half of new domestic electric capacity in 2022 and 2023 was expected to come from solar capacity and batteries, but those forecasts look shaky given the ongoing supply chain crunch.

There’s still a long ways to go for the U.S. to get on track to reduce overall carbon emissions at least 50% by 2030 — something Biden committed the U.S. to under the Paris Agreement — and decarbonize the grid completely by 2035. But the clean energy industry is at least slightly less of a mess than it was last week.

—Hirsh Chitkara (email | twitter)


At the same time that the pandemic demonstrated all that is possible in an interconnected world, we saw in new and increasingly stark ways how certain communities continue to be marginalized and harmed by a persistent digital divide and how effectively that divide exacerbates our society’s other inequities.

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A tweet to make you think

Three months ago, climate activist and writer Bill McKibben started agitating for #heatpumpsforpeace in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The idea? Get President Biden to invoke the Defense Production Act for heat pumps, a move that would help spur job growth, clean up buildings’ carbon footprints and reduce European demand for Russian gas.

Fast forward to this week, and Biden did just that. It’s a huge triple win, though it lost a bit of the spotlight to the solar tariff holiday. Still, McKibben’s tweet about the move should get you thinking. For one, it’s a reminder we have a ton of climate tech just laying around, and smart policies can get it deployed faster.

Clearly Bill McKibben’s Twitter account and Substack can help move the needle. No offense to Bill and his great ideas, but relying on that mechanism isn’t exactly the best recipe for getting the technology we need to reduce carbon emissions out to the masses. But imagine a world where that fantasy Department of Innovation isn’t only funneling money into research and innovation, but also helping identify policy levers to pull that could get that tech deployed at the scale necessary to meet the moment. Like I said, it’s a tweet to make you think.

— Brian Kahn

Hot links

Lithium-ion batteries are so last decade. Solid-state batteries could unlock a future free of range anxiety, and a growing number of startups are working on developing them. (Sounds like a case for some fast-tracking by the USPTO!)

Ford lights up Tesla. Literally. The F-150 Lightning comes with an adapter to provide juice to stranded Teslas, which is either really sweet of Ford or an incredibly sick burn. Either way, I respect it immensely.

Climate negotiators are back in the pool. Figuratively. The United Nations has convened the world’s climate diplomats in Bonn, Germany, as prep for November’s big confab in Egypt.

Great, even mining waste isn’t safe from climate change. That’s going to be an increasingly major problem as the world ramps up the search for critical minerals that will speed the clean energy transition.

So much for ESG. BlackRock has already said it will vote against most climate-related shareholder resolutions. Now, CEO Larry Fink has said he doesn’t want to be the “environmental police.” Relatable, though I personally don’t manage nearly $10 trillion in assets, so the stakes are a little lower.

New York passed right-to-repair, and the climate wins. Less e-waste is a good thing since more than two-thirds of electronics’ carbon footprint comes from production!

— Brian Kahn


There is so much more we need to do to make sure our future is more equitable and inclusive and maximizes America’s potential. It is not enough just to ensure everyone is connected. We also need to extend the full scope of digital opportunity to the people, the communities, and the institutions.

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Thanks for reading! As ever, you can send any and all feedback to See you Thursday!

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