Thin Is In: The Future of Solar Panels
No matter how common (or rare) it is to see solar panels in your area, if your neighbor has them, you know it. Solar panels are typically big and bulky, so they stick out like a sore thumb. Some homeowners even consider them an eyesore. This can make them reluctant to adopt this vital and beneficial renewable energy source.
But what if solar panels were thin enough to be virtually invisible? What if installing them didn’t require you to drill holes in your roof or alter your home’s appearance in any way?
That’s the promise of thin-film solar panels.
What Are Thin-film Solar Panels
Thin-film solar panels are relatively new, but are rapidly gaining popularity as companies and researchers continue to improve the technology. Unlike traditional solar panels, these panels are flexible and, as the name implies, thin.
Thin-film panels are manufactured by placing a photovoltaic material (silicon or cadmium) between a layer of conductive material (aluminum) and a thin layer of glass or plastic. The top layer of glass or plastic improves the panel’s durability and helps to protect it from the environment.
Their sleek design and flexibility enable them to lie flat against roofs. This makes it nearly impossible for people to spot them. Another unique feature is the ability to apply them directly to any surface, including glass on a skylight or a metal roof.
Benefits of Thin-film Solar Panels
Easier to Install
Traditional panels are installed by attaching them to mounts screwed into the roof. This installation method is necessary because these types of panels are not designed to connect directly to a home’s roof and mounting allows the angle of the panels to be adjusted for maximum energy production. This means, not only do mounts add weight to your roof, but they also increase the cost.
Thin-film solar panels are very different. Instead of being attached to metal mounts, they are installed directly on the roof. Their adhesive backing makes installation much easier and less expensive because no mounts or special fasteners are needed.
Manufacturers also claim homeowners can install thin-film panels directly, eliminating the need to hire professional installers.
Because thin-film panels are thin and flexible, they can be installed on various surfaces, including metal roofs and curved surfaces. In contrast, traditional panels are composed of rigid glass and can only be installed on smooth sloped roofs.
Because they’re so thin and don’t require mounts for installation, this type of panel weighs much less than traditional solar panels. Their lighter weight means they can be installed on roofs with weak supports, such as flat roofs, that can’t withstand the weight of traditional panels. Their lighter weight also reduces the risk of damage to your roof.
While the average cost of traditional solar photovoltaic panels has dropped by 70 percent since 2010, some homeowners may still find the price prohibitive. Thin-film panels are by far the least expensive option.
Not only do thin-film panels cost less because they are easier to manufacture and use fewer raw materials, but as noted above, they are easier to install. Their lower initial costs and potential energy savings means homeowners who install thin-film panels will recoup their investment the fastest. Plus, similar to traditional panels, thin-film panels qualify for tax credit incentives, which help offset some initial costs.
Work Well in Hot Climates
While most people associate solar with geographic areas known for year-round sun, hot temperatures reduce the amount of electricity a panel can produce. In fact, too much heat can reduce their efficiency by 10 to 25 percent.
In areas with hot summers, extreme heat can be a significant problem for solar output. But thin-film panels are less affected by heat than traditional panels, making them a better choice for homeowners in these regions.
Work Well in Lower Light
Researchers have illustrated thin-film panels operate better in weak light conditions, such as during the morning and early evening, as well as in cloudy or rainy weather.
Disadvantages of Thin-film Solar Panels
Lower Energy Production
Thin-film solar panels tend to be less efficient than traditional panels. With efficiencies of around 11% (compared to 25% for conventional panels), they require more roof space to achieve the same energy production.
However, researchers recently reported developing an ultra-thin-film panel with a 21% efficiency, making them nearly as efficient as traditional panels. And while these panels aren’t commercially available right now, they illustrate how solar technology is advancing quickly.
In addition, increased performance during heat waves and low light could counter some of the overall reduced efficiency of these panels.
Solar panels are built to last 20 to 25 years, approximately the same as a roof’s lifespan. Thin-film panels, however, are less durable than traditional panels and have a shorter lifespan of 10 to 20 years.
While conventional solar panels are made of glass, which is very strong, thin-film panels have a thin covering of glass or plastic, which makes them more susceptible to degradation from weathering, wind, and hail. However, their flexibility makes them less likely to break in heavy snow conditions.
Other Thin-film Applications
As thin-film technology continues to advance, companies are adopting more uses for them.
Solar shingles are another attractive and durable option for those interested in solar energy. Solar shingles are thin-film technology adapted to be used in roofing. They are made by depositing a very thin layer of absorbent substrate onto flexible stainless steel. However, unlike thin-film panels, solar shingles generate more electricity per square foot than traditional panels.
Another exciting application of thin-film panels is fully transparent solar windows. These windows absorb sunlight and convert it to electricity. Now, while their efficiency is similar to thin-film panels, their advantage is they replace conventional windows, which do not produce any electricity. Some solar windows also include the ability to change tint in response to the sun’s heat, providing an additional layer of energy efficiency.
The trend toward thinner, more efficient solar panels is expected to continue, especially as technology improves. Thinner panels will make solar an even more attractive option for homeowners looking to save money on their energy bills and do their part to protect the environment.
Author Bio: After working for more than 20 years as an environmental planner for government agencies, Nikole Pearson now writes about climate change solutions at nikolepearson.com.