Can a solar car park be patented?
With the UK banning sales of combustion engine cars by 2030, and the general improvement in battery technology, by 2027 there is anticipated to be more than thirteen million electric cars sold globally every year.
However, with a shorter range and long charging times, a shortage of charging capacity within the road network could limit the sales of electric vehicles. It is therefore necessary to find ways of increasing the number of charging points along major traffic routes and in areas where people park their cars.
This is not so easy. In March 2021 the UK Government announced that it would spend nearly £1 billion on improving electric vehicle chargers on main roads. As part of this commitment, every motorway service area would have a minimum of six rapid chargers by 2023. However, to date, less than one quarter of motorway service areas have a minimum of six rapid chargers.
One major problem with installing chargers in major public areas such as motorway services, or hospitals, or the like, is the electricity consumption required. Typically, older slow chargers take power from the main facilities. However, whilst less power is taken per charger, cars are parked for longer meaning that more chargers are required in order to provide charging facilities. This means that the electricity drawn overall is not significantly reduced.
It is not easy to install a sufficiently large electricity supply to these public areas as there is a significant cost implication, and there is a requirement for many bodies to work together to install the supply.
In order to begin to address this issue, many car parks are starting to install solar panels and battery installations to service the car chargers. The principle is straightforward, the solar panels generate the electricity which is stored in batteries and the batteries charge the cars. In many instances, these arrays of solar panels are also connected to the electricity grid to sell any surplus electricity.
The covering of car parks with solar panels is nothing new. French policy makers have recently decided that all car parks with eighty spaces or more must be covered with solar panels. The French Government hopes to generate eleven gigawatts of power with this legislation, which is enough to power twelve million homes.
These solar panels are mounted on canopies installed in the car park. These canopies usually have an angled roof to capture the sun and help with water run-off. As the roof of the canopy is angled, wind shear can be problematic so they need to be particular strong. This means without careful design, the structures and the mounting brackets would be quite large. However, this would increase the size of the canopies, meaning that more car parking spaces are lost. This is especially the case in retro-fit situations, where car parks are having these canopies installed after they have been operational for many years.
In addition, the orientation of the canopies and the canopy roof design is important to avoid having solar panels on a north facing roof, where the solar panels are least effective in the northern hemisphere. It may be that the car parking spaces are re-defined following installation to make best use of the available space. This is a very complex problem to solve and will typically require simulation on a computer.
In terms of intellectual property, the improvements in the structures and the mounting brackets, which allow the reduction in the size whilst maintaining their strength, is clearly patentable and may act as a barrier to entry for competitors. Moreover, there may be a specific way of installing the canopies which is particularly quick to minimise disruption to the car park. This is patentable.
However, what about the simulation of the canopy positions and re-defining the car parking spaces to make best use of the available space? Can this be patented?
At the European Patent Office (EPO) the leading case on this topic is G 1/19, which was issued by the Enlarged Board of Appeal in 2021. Essentially, the Enlarged Board of Appeal requires a translation of the simulation into the physical domain in order for it to be patentable. For the purposes of computer simulations of canopy positioning and defining car parking spaces, the Enlarged Board of Appeal confirmed that where the output of the simulation “form[s] the basis for a further technical use of the outcomes of the simulation (e.g. a use having an impact on physical reality)” a simulation invention may provide a technical contribution.
The Enlarged Board of Appeal confirmed that this output to control a real-world device need not be explicitly set out in the claim.
However, it is useful to note that the Enlarged Board of Appeal put a caveat on its confirmation. The Enlarged Board of Appeal noted that such simulations should be limited to uses having a technical purpose. In other words, the Enlarged Board of Appeal made it clear that if the results of the simulation have a variety of purposes then those results cannot contribute to an inventive step. The rationale for this was because a technical effect needs to be produced over the whole scope of the claim.
Where the claim is not limited to any particular technical purpose, then over the whole scope of the claim a non-technical purpose would also be covered which would produce no technical effect, and so would not contribute to an inventive step.
This means that where the computer simulation is restricted to a computer simulation controlling canopy positioning and defining car park spaces, G 1/19 indicates that the claim will likely provide a technical effect, and so the simulation steps will be taken into account when considering inventive step under the COMVIK doctrine.
Significantly, from a jurisdictional point of view, G 1/19 has confirmed that a step of “building a canopy” is not required in order to provide this technical effect.
With the rapidly evolving and competitive area of green-tech, it is becoming more important than ever to know how to protect your intellectual assets.