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 what they sound like - solar panels that are pliable and portable. With their lightweight design and easy installation process, they can be used for several applications that you may not be aware of.

That’s why we’re going to take an in-depth look at what you can use flexible solar panels for and where they’re more appropriate than traditional solar panels. Along the way, we’ll also take a look at some of the top flexible solar panels available.

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    How do flexible solar panels work?

    Unlike their rigid counterparts, flexible solar panels can be easily moved for different uses.

    Flexible solar panels work just like your traditional rigid solar panels and many are made with the same type of photovoltaic silicon solar cells. However, flexible solar panels are made with solar cells that are over 300 times thinner than those used in traditional solar panels, allowing them to be extremely lightweight and more flexible.

    Unlike traditional solar panels, a flexible panel's surface isn't covered by a protective glass or metal. Instead, it's covered by a polymer known as ETFE, which can bend easily. This keeps the panel as thin and light as possible and allows the cells to remain malleable.

    But, increasing the flexibility does come at a cost. It's that very same design that makes flexible solar panels less efficient and less durable than conventional solar panels.

    Uses for flexible solar panels

    With their unique attributes, flexible solar panels have a variety of different uses. Here are just some of the main uses of flexible panels and the advantages they provide.

    RVs and campers

    Flexible solar panels can be easily installed on your RV or camper and can allow you to run your lights and other appliances using solar energy. You’ll also be able to recharge your batteries with solar during the day so that they are ready to be used at night.

    Using renewable energy to charge your batteries will allow you to roam more freely when on the road, as you won’t have to frantically search for places to hook up your RV.

    Learn more: 5 best RV solar panels and buyer's guide

    Boating

    Boats require a lot of energy to keep things like navigation lights, radio systems, and autopilot functions running. Flexible solar panels can not only provide you with the energy that your boat needs, but they can also keep your boat’s battery charged.

    Flexible solar panels can be used on smaller boats such as sailboats to help keep the battery fully charged, or for large boats to reduce the need to use the engine.

    Due to their adaptability and lightweight design, flexible solar panels can be installed on unutilized areas of your boat to generate solar power.

    Camping and hiking

    If you’re worried about your phone or any other of your appliances running out of charge during a camping trip or long hike, a flexible solar panel can solve that problem. You’ll need to attach the flexible solar panel to your backpack or tent and use the power it generates to charge your electronics.

    You can also use the panel to charge a portable solar battery, to ensure that you never run out of charge during the night.

    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

    If you’re searching for the best flexible solar panel, you’ll find there are many potential options for you to choose from. So, to make your job a little bit easier, we’ve listed our top 3 flexible solar panels.

    Not only do these solar panels stand out from the crowd in terms of their performance and warranties, but they’re also from well-known and trusted solar panel providers.

    While you can 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.

    1. Renogy 100 Watt 12 Volt Flexible Monocrystalline Solar Panel

    $189.99 Buy Now

    Image source: Renogy

    The Renogy 100-watt flexible solar panel is both durable, affordable, and high-quality. Weighing a mere 4.2 pounds and only a tenth of an inch tall, this panel works great for your RV, camper, or motorhome.

    The 100-watt, 12-volt panel can withstand harsh environments and can easily be installed with adhesives or screwed into a roof if necessary.

    Renogy offers a competitive 25-year performance warranty, where the panel will operate at 95% of its rated output after 5 years, 90% at 10 years, and 80% at year 25. However, the material and workmanship warranty is only 5 years, due to the high-stress situations that flexible panels endure.

    2. Renogy 175 Watt 12 Volt Flexible Monocrystalline Solar Panel 

    Price: $329.99 Buy Now

    Image source: Renogy

    This 175-watt 12-volt flexible solar panel is Renogy’s more expensive and more efficient model. This panel also offers a flex of up to 240 degrees, which provides you with more possibilities of where it can be installed.

    Even with a higher efficiency rating of 17.3%, this flexible solar panel is still extremely lightweight. At 6.2 pounds, this panel weighs 70% less than the rigid alternative and won’t pose a problem for your RV.

    So, if you’re looking for a flexible solar panel that provides a bit more power, and you’re willing to pay a higher price, then this panel is a great option.

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

    Price: $179.00 Buy Now

    Image source: Walmart

    The SunPower 110 W flexible panel is a lightweight panel at only 4.4 pounds, making it perfect for charging your RV or boat battery. The SunPower flexible panel comes with a 5-year limited power warranty of 80%, so it won’t last as long as the Renogy flexible solar panel options.

    Although we do say it usually is best to buy panels from the manufacturer's site, SunPower does not seem to sell its flexible solar panel kits directly to consumers. However, SunPower flexible solar panels can be bought at a few retail locations, including Walmart.

    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 more than capable.

    Benefits of flexible solar panels

    Portable 

    The biggest advantage of flexible solar panels, and why they are made in the first place, is their portability. Whether it be on your boat, RV, or in your hiking backpack, a flexible solar panel can be taken almost anywhere. With simple installation steps, you’re also able to easily transition your flexible solar panel to power different off-grid systems.

    Lightweight 

    Flexible solar panels are significantly lighter and smaller than traditional solar panels because they use thin cells and polymer as opposed to many layers of glass, metal, and thick solar cells used by their rigid counterparts.

    A flexible solar panel will range from about four to ten pounds, while a traditional solar panel will weigh upwards of 40 pounds.

    Easy installation 

    Unlike traditional solar panels which need to be mounted to a racking system, flexible solar panels can be installed simply with an adhesive such as Velcro tape or magnets. The easy installation process is one of the reasons flexible solar panels are such a popular choice among customers looking for portable panels.

    Adapt to unusual surfaces

    With flexible solar panels offering a flex of up to 240 degrees, they’re able to be used on curved surfaces where rigid solar panels cannot. This could be on the curved top of a van or an uneven surface on an RV roof.

    With their lightweight frame, they’re also able to be installed on weaker more fragile surfaces without causing any damage.

    Limitations of flexible solar panels

    Efficiency

    One of the main limitations of flexible solar panels is their efficiency ratings. With flexible solar panels, you can expect an efficiency rating between 7% to 15%, whereas conventional panels have an average efficiency rating of 19.2%.

    Because flexible solar panels tend to have low-efficiency ratings, you need more of them to generate the amount of energy you need, which is why they aren't a popular choice for residential roofs that have limited space. You can choose to purchase flexible solar panels with higher efficiency ratings, however, you need to be prepared to spend more money on them.

    Lifespan

    Flexible solar panels typically come with 5-year warranties, whereas rigid solar panels are warrantied for 25 years. Their short lifespan is largely attributed to the materials they are made out of. The thin solar cells and polymer coating are far less durable than the glass and aluminum used in conventional panels.

    Flexible solar panels are also more likely to encounter the rigors of the road, water, or trail, as they are primarily used as a portable power source. Enduring these conditions can also contribute to a shorter lifespan.

    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 300 to 370 watts, while flexible solar panels are generally around 100 watts.

    While a 100-watt panel can't power your home, it can produce enough electricity to charge appliances, such as laptops, fans, and lights. You can install more than one flexible panel to produce more electricity to run larger appliances or charge batteries. So as long as you put a flexible solar panel to the right use, its low wattage shouldn't be a problem.

    Are flexible solar panels worth the investment?

    As is the case with many solar panel comparisons, your best option will depend on your requirements and application.

    A flexible solar panel will be your best option if you need a lightweight and portable solar energy solution. This could mean on top of your RV, on the roof of your boat, or hanging off your hiking bag. With an easy DIY installation, you also have the possibility of moving the system for different uses.

    In the future, new flexible solar panel technology might be beneficial for more renewable energy uses. But for now, they are a great addition to your outdoor lifestyle.

    If you’re looking at a permanent home solar system, traditional solar panels are your best option. With traditional solar panels being longer-lasting, more efficient, and having a higher power output, they’re the clear choice to provide solar power to your home.

    Find out how much you can save with solar

    Key takeaways

    • Flexible solar panels are made with solar cells that are over 300 times smaller than that of traditional solar panels, making them much lighter and more malleable.
    • The lightweight and portable design of flexible solar panels make them great for your RV, boat, or camping trip.
    • Some of the best flexible solar panels available are the Renogy 175-Watt panel and the SunPower 100-Watt panel.
    • Flexible solar panels still don’t have the durability, efficiency, and power output to replace traditional solar panels as a home solar solution.

    *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.

     - 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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