Thin-film solar panels are widely used in commercial settings, but may not have ever been seen by the average homeowner. While they are low in efficiency and may take up too much space for some, if your house is portable, or set up a little too strange for traditional solar panels, these might be a great option for you.
What Are Thin-Film Panels?
Thin-film solar panels are often also known as flexible solar panels. They are called such because, unlike other panels which are made to be rigid, these are flexible and can sit in a variety of shapes.
They are said to be around 350 times thinner (1) than other common silicon solar panels. This makes them lightweight and easy to install.
They work pretty similarly to other solar panels, where they use silicon to take the light from the sun, absorb it, and convert it into electricity. These solar panels aren’t seen as much as monocrystalline and polycrystalline, but they aren’t entirely new.
The technology for them has been around since the 1970s (2). However, the interest in them hasn’t grown until recently.
What Makes Them Different?
Thin-film solar panels are designed to have a much more flexible application and usage than other silicon panels like polycrystalline and monocrystalline. They are most often used in commercial applications, such as large commercial buildings, but can be used by homeowners in unique situations, such as unusual roofs, or ones that may be slanted more than considered acceptable for other panels.
The biggest difference between them and traditional solar panels is the fact that they are incredibly thin. This happens because, even though they are less efficient than other solar panels, the materials used are actually highly efficient, which allows them to get close in efficiency with a much smaller size.
How Are They Made?
There are a couple of different types of thin-film solar cells. There are amorphous silicon, cadmium telluride, and copper indium gallium selenide (3). Each one works roughly the same way but just uses different materials.
The least common variant is cadmium telluride as the materials are hard to find and can be toxic.
No matter the kind, they are all made the same way. Each panel can be broken down into three parts, which is the layer of silicon or other materials, which is where the sunlight is converted into useful energy.
Then there is the conductive sheet, which is something like aluminum to help prevent the loss of sunlight and make efficiency a little higher. Finally, there is a protective layer that is usually glass or plastic to protect it from outside elements.
Pros and Cons
- Able to be used on a non-traditional or too-slanted house roof
- Can handle high heat and humidity
- Lower carbon footprint and material required (4)
- Low in efficiency
- Doesn’t last as long as other solar panels
- Need a lot of space to get a fair amount of power
- Can be hard to get
- Can have toxic materials
Should I Get Thin-Film Panels?
Thin-film panels have some pretty unique uses. They are good in situations where they may be twisted or have the potential to break. A new application of them is on moving homes, like buses and RVs, because they can mold to sloped roofs and they don’t take up a lot of height like other solar panels that could make them dangerous under bridges.
Because of their flexibility, they are less likely to get damaged as well. They are more able to bend without issues and are less likely to crack. This is what makes them ideal for commercial buildings.
Since they can cover a wide space and be placed on almost any roof style, they can provide a lot of energy without as much of a cost and less chance of replacement.
They also do very well in hotter conditions. Polycrystalline panels, when they get too warm, will lose a lot of efficiency, and become less useful, which can be a problem since they need to be in the sun as much as possible. Monocrystalline panels are a little better, but still not perfect.
Thin-films lose efficiency under high temperatures much less than other options. This makes them ideal for buildings that are in sunny and hot locations, like the desert.
They are also ideal for humid temperatures since they have a high-quality series of glass layers to prevent moisture from getting in. This means they also do very well in hot and humid conditions like tropical climates.
Their thin design also makes them cheaper. Since they aren’t using a lot of thick materials, they can be made for a pretty low cost. In fact, they are considered the cheapest of all solar panels.
Of course, all these positives come with some negatives as well, which explains why they still aren’t widely used. The biggest one is that they are pretty low in efficiency.
Most are around 7% efficient, though some can get close to 18% (5). This, at best, puts them comparably to polycrystalline panels, but they are often still only about half as efficient.
Even at their best, they can really only get to the lowest efficiency from monocrystalline panels. This means you have to purchase more to get the same amount of power.
If you have a lot of space, like with commercial buildings, this isn’t a problem, but it can be an issue for people with minimal space.
They also don’t last as long as other solar panels. Though they have a shorter payback period because of their low cost, they only last between 10 and 20 years on average.
- Harris, W. (n.d.) How Thin-film Solar Cells Work: How Stuff Works. How Stuff Works Article. Retrieved February 8, 2023, from https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/thin-film-solar-cell1.htm#:~:text=The%20thinness%20of%20the%20cell,are%20just%20one%20micron%20thick
- Wikipedia contributors. (2023, January 28). Thin-film solar cell. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thin-film_solar_cell
- Luna, A. A. (2019, July 24). Design of thin film solar cells based on a unified simple analytical model | Journal of Applied Research and Technology. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1665642317300950
- MacDonald, J. (2018, June 15). Are Some Solar Panels More Environmentally Friendly Than Others? JSTOR Daily. https://daily.jstor.org/the-most-environmentally-friendly-solar-panel/
- Lee, T. D., & Ebong, A. U. (2017). A review of thin film solar cell technologies and challenges. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 70, 1286–1297. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rser.2016.12.028