What are flexible solar panels and are they right for you?
Solar panels are one of the best sources currently available for providing clean, renewable energy. Unfortunately, some drawbacks reduce their practicality. For one thing, they're expensive to produce and install. For another thing, they're large and bulky, limiting the places and ways in which panels can be installed.
However, there's another option.
Flexible solar panels are increasing in popularity for a range of solar solutions. Let's take some time to answer a few questions about flexible solar panel technology and see what solutions are in the market today.
What Are Flexible Solar Panels?
Traditional solar panels are either monocrystalline, made from a silicon ingot containing a single silicon crystal, or polycrystalline, a cheaper version made from silicon wafers that contain multiple individual silicon crystals.
Polycrystalline cells are easier and cheaper to make, and so polycrystalline panels are usually a little cheaper but less efficient. The active cells of the panels themselves are typically about the width of a human hair, and rigid.
Flexible solar panels, on the other hand, are much thinner -- only a few microns wide. This thin material allows some models to bend and flex a bit.
How do flexible solar panels differ from traditional solar panels?
Currently, flexible solar panels are made from silicon, just like traditional panels. While the thinner construction allows these panels some degree of flexibility, the electrodes embedded inside are brittle, limiting their mobility.
However, new technological developments have yielded organic panels with graphene electrodes. The graphene makes these panels much more pliable and allows for a great deal more flexibility. The graphene technology is still in its early stages, but researchers believe it has great potential for the future.
Where can you get flexible solar panels?
Basic thin film silicon solar panels can be purchased all over, from Home Depot to Walmart to Amazon, as well as directly from the manufacturers. See reviews for the best solar manufacturers of 2018.
Who are the top producers of flexible solar panels?
- First Solar - First Solar makes some of the cheapest and most durable thin film panels for commercial buyers, with some of the highest efficiency rates.
- SoloPower - SoloPower's panels are great for mounting on all sides of a building, integrating into its structure, rather than being mounted on top.
- Sharp - The Japanese electronics firm was one of the pioneers of solar power in the 1950s, and continues their innovation today with thin film panel technology.
- Solar Frontier - Another manufacturer on the forefront of solar innovation, they hope soon to produce a thin film panel with 30% efficiency -- by far the highest to date.
- JinkoSolar - A global leader in solar power, they aim to provide the most efficient and sustainable solar solutions on the market.
- SunTech - Focusing on R&D and solar innovation, their goal since 2001 has been to optimize solar technology and deliver it across the globe.
Are thin-film solar panels and flexible solar panels the same thing?
When we talk about flexible solar panels, we're generally talking about silicon. But there are three other types of thin-film panels, which use other materials such as Cadmium Telluride, Gallium Arsenide, and Copper Indium Gallium Arsenide.
Each has different properties and different levels of flexibility and durability. Additionally, organic graphene solar panels, while also flexible, don't fall into the category of thin-film panels.
How much do flexible solar panels cost?
The actual photovoltaic material of solar panels makes up only about a third of total production cost. The remaining cost involves the bulky glass structure.
By printing flexible solar panels onto cheaper, more accessible materials - the price is goes down significantly.
Are there advantages to flexible solar panels?
In addition to the much lower cost, flexible solar panels have wider applications. Small and lightweight, they can be used on roofs that couldn't handle the weight of traditional solar panels.
In the future, graphene solar cells will have even more versatility. The organic photovoltaic material can be printed even on ordinary paper or cloth! Its transparent nature means it can be mounted on glass - creating windows that generate solar power!
What solar solution is best for residential installations?
If you're installing a solar system in your home, you'll want standard silicon panels, either monocrystalline or the cheaper but bulkier and less efficient polycrystalline.
While thin-film panels are less bulky in and of themselves, you need many more of them to equal the power of standard solar panels. Therefore, they take up a considerable amount of space and are better suited for industrial and commercial applications, as well as solar farms.
Will flexible solar cell technology revolutionize the solar industry in 2018?
The technology still has a way to go before it takes over the industry. For one thing, flexible cells are less durable than traditional solar panels, and more prone to damage. Before they can become the industry standard, they'll have to be made to withstand the elements more effectively. Another issue is their lower efficiency in converting solar rays into usable energy compared to traditional panels.
Traditional solar panels have an average efficiency rate of 14-17%. But thin-film solar panels are only 11-13% efficient. And graphene-based panels have an efficiency rate of only about 4% at maximum, with researchers hoping to boost that number to around 10% in the future.
However, a company called Maxim is currently experimenting with technology that optimizes solar power at the cell level, rather than the module level. This technology is being picked up by a number of leading solar manufacturers, including JinkoSolar and SunTech, and has the potential to increase solar power production substantially going forward.
While not quite ready to replace traditional solar panels- particularly in residential areas - flexible panels have huge potential to make solar energy more accessible, cheaper, and more versatile in the future. Learn more about how solar panels can help you, both today and in the future!
Author: Andrew Sendy | Home Solar Journalist
Andy is deeply concerned about climate change but is also concerned about cost of living pressures on American families. He advocates for solar energy and solar battery storage only to the extent that they make financial sense for homeowners. He is not affiliated with any particular solar company in the United States.