While global demand for energy is ever increasing, fossil fuels are fast falling out of favour because of their severe contribution to environmental pollution. Low-carbon energy sources, such as the wind, the waves, and the sun, are increasingly sought after by energy providers seeking alternative energy sources to power the world.
Singapore enjoys an average annual solar irradiance of 1,580 kWh/m2/year, which is about 50 percent greater than that of temperate countries. Unsurprisingly, solar energy has been deemed by the country’s National Climate Change Secretariat (NCCS) as “the most promising renewal energy source for electricity generation”, because solar energy is not only environmentally sustainable, it also enhances Singapore’s energy security as it does not rely on fuel to be imported from elsewhere.
II. NATIONAL PROGRAMS
In order to reach a nationally targeted installed solar capacity of 2 Gigawatts-Peak (GWp) by the year 2030, which can power about 350,000 households, one of the steps taken by the Singapore government is to change the rules so that solar installations in Singapore can now be connected to the power grid within seven days, down from 27 days before. Another step is the SolarNova programme launched in 2014 to accelerate the deployment of solar photovoltaic (PV) systems on government sites and public housing apartment blocks developed by the Housing Development Board (HDB). Solar energy obtained by rooftop systems on HDB blocks is used to power common services such as lifts, lights and water pumps during the day, thus achieving an average net-zero energy consumption in the common areas, while excess solar energy obtained is channeled to the electrical grid.
Besides rooftop solar systems deployed on HDB blocks and numerous government sites across the country, one of the largest floating solar farms in the world was officially launched this year in July 2021 at Tengeh Reservoir. The floating solar PV system is about the size of 45 football fields and was built in less than a year during the Covid-19 pandemic. The Tengeh floating solar system provides a capacity of about 60MWp to power five water treatment plants as well as the Marina Barrage. It reduces carbon emissions by about 32 kilotonnes a year, which is about the same as taking 7,000 cars off the roads.
III. INVESTMENTS IN SOLAR ENERGY INNOVATION
Together with the strong adoption of solar solutions by the government, the push to tap solar energy as an alternative to fossil fuels is advanced by the high rate of solar energy-related innovation in Singapore. Although a small country, Singapore ranks fifth in the world in the number of photovoltaic-related inventions originated per million population, as shown in Fig. 1 below.
Fig. 1 (Source: “The Global Innovation Index 2018: Energizing the World with Innovation”, page 168)
In Singapore, private and public sector entities continue to invest in energy innovation. For example, as of July 2021, energy company Shell and the Energy Market Authority (EMA) together committed S$8 million to develop energy start-ups in Singapore. EMA has also collaborated with Enterprise Singapore (ESG) to award five projects to industry partners to develop and test-bed innovative solutions in solar energy and demand-side management.
More recently, on 25 October 2021, a $6 million joint commitment was launched by industrial developer JTC and EMA to fund projects under the Jurong Island Renewable Energy Request for Proposal (RFP). This RFP is open to small and medium enterprises as well as research bodies. Awarded projects will prototype and demonstrate solutions on Jurong Island, home to the petrochemical industry in Singapore. These will be solutions for energy storage systems, low-carbon solutions, and renewable energy, including advances in solar PV materials, innovative methods in deploying solar PV, and efficient conversion of solar energy for industrial uses.
Looking further afield, EMA also officially announced on 25 October 2021 that it intends to issue two other Requests For Proposals for up to a total of 4GW of low-carbon electricity imports into Singapore by 2035. This is expected to make up around 30% of Singapore’s electricity supply by then.
On 26 October 2021, a memorandum of understanding was signed by a consortium of companies including Sumitomo, Samsung C&T, Oriens Asset Management, ESS, Durapower Group, Mustika Combol Indah, and Agung Sedayu, led by Singapore’s Sunseap Group, to develop solar power systems in the Riau islands, Indonesia. The developed systems are expected to have a total eventual capacity of 7GWp, in addition to the 2.2GWp floating solar farm that Sunseap announced in July 2021 that it will build in Batam island, Indonesia. The aim is for these systems to provide 1GW of non-intermittent low-carbon clean energy for both Singapore and Indonesia, which will help to meet Singapore’s 4GW low-carbon electricity import target.
IV. IP CONSIDERATIONS
From the slew of local inventions that are being developed to harness solar energy, there will arise not only implemented solutions that contribute towards the national solar energy targets, but also intangible intellectual property (IP) assets that underpin the implemented solutions.
Especially for start-ups, IP may be all that they effectively possess, and it is vital that they retain legal ownership or at least a controlling stake in the IP that they have painstakingly developed, for at least the duration that they are continuing to operate in this space. For companies taking up the gauntlet to develop solar energy solutions in Singapore, it is essential that they secure their own IP as the development and implementation of any solar solutions often involve government authorities, and also often require collaboration with other partners, whether from the public or private sectors. With multiple parties working together to put forward considerably complex technical systems to harness and deploy solar energy, each party cannot afford to neglect their own IP standing.
It is therefore reassuring to note that one of the start-ups (Quantified Energy Labs) awarded by the Shell and EMA partnership for their project on solar photovoltaics deployment have initiated two patent filings to protect their innovations. In another project jointly awarded by the collaboration between EMA and ESG, two local companies (Sunseap Leasing Pte Ltd and Evercomm Uni-Tech Singapore Pte Ltd) have separately filed for patent protection of their own inventions while working together to develop a platform to dynamically control distributed energy resources for managing solar intermittency.
In order to be able to continue leveraging on what they have contributed to the collaboration outcome, it is imperative for entities to establish their own IP portfolios while joining up with other groups to generate solar solutions. Below are a look at some of the key aspects and forms of IP that should be considered when innovating in the solar energy space.
When it comes to making any disclosures of their technology, companies need to be mindful of the timing and extent of the disclosures made of their technical know-how to third parties, including their collaboration partners, as such disclosures could be fatally damaging to patent applications that are filed after the disclosures have been made. If possible, a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) should be signed before sharing confidential information, and it is highly advisable not to make any disclosures at all if there is any intention to obtain patent protection.
When working with other parties, research and development collaboration agreements (RCAs) should be executed and should include IP clauses that clearly spell out at least who is bringing what to the table (background IP), who will own the ensuing new technology that arises from the collaboration (foreground IP), and the terms under which the foreground IP will be protected and commercialized. A properly crafted RCA will provide clarity and equity to all parties concerned so as to avoid any disputes later on.
A patent gives its owner the right to exclude others, typically for 20 years, from exploiting a technical invention. In the solar energy field, patents would usually be the most appropriate form of IP to protect new and inventive technical solutions, particularly if the eventual commercialization of such solutions would disclose to competitors how the solutions work. However, if the invention cannot be readily reverse engineered to discover its operating principles, it should be evaluated whether it would be better not to file for patent protection as patent applications will be automatically published, typically 1.5 years after filing.
A trademark identifies the source of a product or service. Companies providing solar energy solutions can strengthen their branding by obtaining trademark registrations of a distinctive name or sign associated with their products and/or services. A trademark registration can be renewed indefinitely, and would be a particularly relevant form of IP protection if a company intends to retail its own solar energy products and services.
A design registration protects the external look of an article, including non-physical products, and can be two- or three-dimensional. Design registrations can be obtained for solar energy products that are distinctive in their outward appearance, and can also be a useful complementary form of IP protection for solar solutions that have a special look as well as technical functionality that is protected by a patent.
Copyright protection is automatically conferred on source codes and machine-readable computer software. Unlike patents, trademarks and design registrations, no application for registration of copyrights is required.
Importantly to note, these various forms of IP can be licensed, assigned (i.e. sold) or mortgaged. Owners can also exercise their rights to these forms of IP by taking legal action against infringing parties. Thus, IP are powerful business assets that must be carefully protected and managed strategically. This will allow companies to remain free to work with other bodies for maximizing the value of their IP, beyond the immediate scope of the existing projects, and even beyond Singapore’s shores.
In all, it can be seen that as opportunities abound for collaboration and growth in the many projects and initiatives that are continually being launched in the solar energy space, it behooves all participants to create, protect and harness their IP, so as to obtain value not only for themselves, but also for the future of society as we turn towards the sun as a viable alternative source of energy to fossil fuels.