What are flexible solar panels used for?

Updated

Man cleaning a flexible solar panel on top of an RV
Flexible solar panels can bend and shape to many unconventional surfaces. Image source: Solar Power World

Flexible solar panels are exactly that - solar panels that are pliable and portable, making them a perfect tool to be used while camping, hiking, or traveling in an RV. Generally, you will only need one or two for your outdoor solar energy needs, which makes them easier (and cheaper) to buy as a consumer. 

Which brand of flexible solar panels would be best for your unique needs? And what should you look for when buying them? Let’s find out.

*Note: This is an unbiased review: we have no financial ties with any of the companies mentioned, nor do we earn money from affiliate advertising. The content of this blog is based on research and information available at the time of writing.

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    How do flexible solar panels work?

    Unlike their rigid counterparts, flexible solar panels bend to your portable solar needs.

    There are three main types of solar panels: polycrystalline, monocrystalline, and thin-film modules. Flexible solar panels are a part of the thin-film family

    Flexible solar panels work just like your typical solar panels and are made with the same photovoltaic silicon solar cells to generate electricity. Compared to their rigid counterparts, flexible solar panels are made with thinner silicon cells, making them lighter and more flexible.

    Since they’re thinner, they’re also more malleable, which allows them to move and bend. They don’t need to be covered by protective glass and metal like regular solar panels do. Instead, they’re covered by a polymer known as ETFE, which has the ability to bend easily.

    Although their thinner design allows them to be used for things like camping and hiking, it’s that very same design that makes them less efficient than traditional solar panels.  

    What are flexible solar panels used for?

    Because flexible solar panels are thinner and less efficient, you’ll need more of them to generate the same amount of energy that fewer monocrystalline or polycrystalline panels could. 

    Since they’re also pretty low-cost, all of these factors make them better-suited for large-scale installations, like a commercial solar array in a field or on top of warehouses. With that said, you’re probably here looking for the practical uses of flexible panels for your on-the-go needs - like while camping or out on a boat. 

    They come in many shapes and sizes, and can work on both flat or curved surfaces. Flexible solar panels give you the flexibility (see what we did there?) to use solar power wherever you need it. 

    In fact, you can buy flexible solar panels that are small enough to power your phone or big enough to roll out on top of your RV, acting as a generator to charge your 12-volt RV battery. You can read more about how that works here.

    Because you generally use flexible panels for outdoor use and charging things with low-wattage needs (like the aforementioned 12-volt battery or your phone charger), you only need one panel. If you need more than one, then you are looking at a traditional (rigid) panel project and should contact a solar installer.

    Check out what local companies are charging for solar installations

    How much do flexible solar panels cost?

    Flexible panels range in price, depending on the brand, size, and wattage. Generally, you can expect to spend as little as $100 for a lower-quality panel, with a cap for a higher-quality module at around $500. 

    A high-quality flexible panel will cost you about $200. We listed a few options below that offer dependable (and affordable) portable power. 

    Top 3 flexible solar panel modules

    When it comes to flexible panels, there are a few brand names you can trust, including Renogy and SunPower. 

    While you are able to purchase flexible solar panels on Amazon, we recommend buying them straight from the brand’s website so that you can ensure you will get the warranty and customer service straight from the company. 

    We recommend the following 3 models:

    1. Renogy 100 Watt 12 Volt Flexible Monocrystalline Solar Panel

    $189.99 Buy Now

    Image source: Renogy

    This flexible solar panel is both durable and affordable. Claiming to weigh less than 70% of a conventional solar panel and only a tenth of an inch tall, it will not weigh down your RV, camper, or motorhome at all.

    The 100-watt, 12-volt panel can withstand snow and wind and can be easily installed with adhesives or screwed into a roof if necessary. It weighs a mere 4.2 lbs and has an efficiency rating of 14.9%. 

    Renogy offers a competitive 25-year power output warranty and a 5 year and 10-year efficiency rate at 95% and 90%, respectively. The material and workmanship warranty is only 5 years, due to the high-stress situations that flexible panels endure. Because of the way they’re typically used, they’re more likely to break - whereas rigid solar panels generally have a 25-year workmanship warranty because they are built to last. 

    All of this means that if your Renogy panels make it to 25 years, their power output and efficiency will be covered, while the material won't. Because flexible panels are so cheap, we would not even bother calling in about a material warranty. While Renogy should make it an easy process, most of the time, the hoops you need to jump through to prove that you deserve the warranty is not worth the cost of simply buying a new panel.

    2. Renogy 175 Watt 12 Volt Flexible Monocrystalline Solar Panel 

    Price: $329.99 Buy Now

    Image source: Renogy

    This more expensive, higher-efficiency Renogy model offers more power in one panel than the model above. Other than that, they are essentially the same. 

    The 175W panel is a bit heavier at 6.2 lbs, and offers a higher efficiency at 17.3%.

    You can also count on the 25-year power and efficiency warranty, as well as the 5-year material warranty. 

    3. SunPower 100-Watt 12V 18V Flexible Monocrystalline Solar Panel

    Price: $179.00 Buy Now

    Image source: Walmart.com

    This SunPower Maxeon flexible monocrystalline cell solar panel can be bought at a few retail locations, including Walmart. Although we did say it usually is best to buy panels from the manufacturer site, SunPower does not seem to sell their flexible solar panel kits directly to consumers.

    The Sunpower flexible panel is a 110 W and weighs about 5 lbs, making it perfect for charging your RV or boat battery. Because RVs and boats are off-grid, their power source comes from a 12-volt onboard battery. So instead of using a gas generator, you can connect a solar panel directly to the battery to charge it up. The SunPower flexible panel also comes with a 5-year warranty.

    If you’re looking for a relatively cheap solar panel to do simple jobs like keeping your lights on when camping, this SunPower panel will be there for you. 

    What are the pros and cons of flexible solar panels?

    Because there are a handful of cons when it comes to flexible solar panels, they’re really best-suited for portable power only.

    Flexible solar panels: pros and cons
    Pros Cons
    Portable Less efficient
    Durable Short lifespan
    Lightweight Supplies minimal power output

    Pros 

    Portable 

    The biggest advantage of flexible solar panels, and why they are made in the first place, is their portability. Bring it on your boat, RV, in your hiking backpack, and wherever you want electricity. 

    Durable 

    Flexible solar panels are built to handle stress of being carried, moved around a lot, or added to the outside of an RV. They are able to withstand potential damage due to being dropped, rolled up, and taken up or down to be moved to a new place. 

    Rigid solar panels, on the other hand, are built to withstand the elements but they are not durable in the same way flexible panels are, i.e., you can’t roll up a rigid panel and carry it around in your backpack for a hike.

    Lightweight 

    What makes flexible panels so portable, aside from the flexibility, is their light weight. Because there are not many layers of glass, metal, and larger silicon cells, flexible panels only weigh about four to 10 pounds. 

    Cons 

    Less efficient 

    Now for the cons - flexible solar panels have lower efficiency ratings than traditional panels do. You can expect rigid solar panels to have a high efficiency of around 22% compared to an average of about 15% efficiency for flexible panels. 

    You really can only rely on flexible solar panels to power small electronics or for portable power uses. 

    Short lifespan 

    Flexible solar panels are built for very specific uses in mind (aka a quick outdoor life) compared to the rigid panels that will adorn your roof for 25 years or more. Flexible panels are generally warrantied for only 5 years. 

    Flexible solar panels last for less time because they are more likely to encounter events that could damage the panel, like driving around on your RV and being scratched by branches or road signs.

    Although some flexible panels, such as Renogy, do come with great warranties, they are still less generous than those for rigid panels. 

    Supplies minimal power output 

    The wattage of solar panels is a way to measure the amount of electricity they produce; the higher the wattage, the more electricity. The average wattage of a rigid solar panel is 260-330W, while flexible solar panels are generally around 100W. 

    That 100-watt panel can’t power your home, but it can charge a battery within your RV. So as long as you know what you are getting into when buying a flexible solar panel (like that it cannot power your home), you should be satisfied. 

    Are flexible solar panels worth the investment?

    If you need power for an RV, camping trip, a boat, or any other off-grid portable use, a flexible solar panel is a great choice. They are an easy DIY installation and act as a solar generator, providing electricity wherever you go. 

    As solar technology continues to advance, flexible solar panels might be beneficial for more renewable energy uses. But for now, they are a great addition to your outdoor lifestyle. 

    If you want to power your entire home, need a ground-mount system, or are installing panels that are intended to last over 25 years, go with traditional, rigid panels. Find the best ones for your needs and work with local solar installers for a solar system installation. 

    Key takeaways

    • Flexible solar panels are best-suited for charging up your battery in an RV, boat, or for other off-grid uses like camping.
    • You can expect to spend $200 for a high-quality flexible solar panel, but typically no more than $500.
    • While flexible panels are portable, lightweight, and built to be durable, they’re less efficient than traditional rigid panels.
    • The warranty for flexible panels usually does not cover material defects for more than 5 years because flexible panels are not built to last as long as regular solar panels.
     - Author of Solar Reviews

    Ana Almerini

    Web Content Specialist

    Ana is a content specialist at SolarReviews. She uses her experience in marketing and knowledge from her master's in climate communications to research and review the solar industry.

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