Abandoned Pipelines and Turbine Graveyards: The Role of Patents in an Aging Energy Sector

Wind turbine propeller on a sandy desert
Photo by luchschenF (Shutterstock Image)

Emily Xiang

Emily Xiang is an IPilogue Writer, the President of the Intellectual Property Society of Osgoode, and a 2L JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.

 

Decommissioning is the Future

In the energy sector, decommissioning refers to the practice of dismantling energy installations at the end of their life cycles when they no longer satisfy required standards of safety, security, regulation, economic viability, ethical considerations, or environmental integrity. This process may also involve removing, recycling, remanufacturing, storing, or disposing of specific compounds. Nuclear energy, coal and gas-fired energy, and renewable energy are currently the most notable energy infrastructure sectors facing decommissioning. For example, wind turbines typically have a lifespan of approximately 25 years. As the lifespan of first-generation turbines comes to an end, new decommissioning issues in the renewable energy sector is making room for new patent opportunities as well. In some countries, old turbine blades are being repurposed for their strength and stability to reinforce concrete walls, buildings, bridges, and other structures. Some chemical processes are also being re-developed or re-applied to extract fiberglass and other reusable materials from old blades, with a view to recycle them for future use in new turbines.

Current Challenges with Decommissioning

Unfortunately, decommissioning existing energy infrastructures in a cost-effective and environmentally sound manner comes with its fair share of challenges, many of which public and private stakeholders alike have overlooked. For instance, decommissioning policymakers will need to turn their minds to the management of radioactive, toxic, and hazardous materials, or the handling, transportation, reuse, recycling, and disposal of very large compounds. The process of decommissioning is also sure to incur costs, but few operators adequately plan or put aside sufficient funds to execute their decommissioning projects effectively. There are also several environmental concerns associated with either restoring decommissioned sites to their original condition or preparing them for subsequent use. Moreover, the physical remoteness of many infrastructure sites raises logistical challenges concerning the mobilization of equipment and resources. 

Opportunities for Patents in the Decommissioning Sector

Patents form one avenue available to protect innovations that may address some of the current challenges related to decommissioning in the energy sector. Moreover, various mechanisms exist for expediting the application process for innovations that serve a particular purpose. For instance, CIPO provides four methods of accelerating patent applications, including an advanced examination of green technologies that help resolve or mitigate environmental impacts. Patent applicants that seek to address current environmental concerns with decommissioning may find themselves on a fast-tracked requisition course at no additional cost. 

However, the practice of regularly maintaining and renewing patents often comes with ongoing costs. Patent applicants and holders should be mindful of how their IP rights can be aligned with commercially profitable decommissioning activities worldwide to mitigate costs. For example, patent applications for inventions related to decommissioning may first be filed in countries such as Canada or the UK, where decommissioning activities are increasing and expedited avenues of examination for green technologies are currently available. Meanwhile, applications in other patenting jurisdictions in which energy infrastructures are still being developed or are still not yet nearing the end of their lifespans may be allowed to follow ordinary examination courses. 

Conclusion

 As older generation energy infrastructures near the end of their lifespans, the need for comprehensive decommissioning policies and novel innovations will only increase. Until recently, many of the challenges associated with decommissioning were overlooked in the energy sector, with stakeholder interests moreso focused on new builds or retrofit projects. Careful planning on the part of both operators and interested parties on the IP front will be essential in ensuring efficient and effective decommissioning projects.

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