As technology constantly advances there are many new green technologies released each day that can help us improve our energy efficiency. One such technology is the “Thin-Film Solar Panel.” How are thin-film solar panels being used by consumers today? How do they compare against traditional photovoltaic (PV) panels?
How Solar Cells Work
Since every solar panel is built using lots of individual cells its important to understand how these cells work. According to GE, “Solar cells convert one form of energy (sunlight) into another form of energy (electricity). When the sunlight is reduced or stopped, for example, when a cloud passes in front of the sun or when the sun goes down in the evening, the conversion process slows down or stops completely. When the sunlight returns, the conversion process resumes. Solar cells do not store electricity. At night, a solar electric system needs some form of energy storage, usually batteries, to draw upon instead of the solar cells.”
What is a Thin-Film Solar Panel?
A thin-film panel is named more for it’s manufacturing process than it’s actual size. Considered by many as part of the second generation of photovoltaic cells, thin-film solar panels use a manufacturing process which involves applying multiple thin layers of a sunlight reactive substance onto a base material.
What are the Benefits of Thin-Film Solar Panels?
Unlike their “thick-film” cousins, thin-film panels use much less raw material in manufacturing. Additionally thin-film cells can be manufactured in a large-area process. This process can be both continuous and automated. Another unique characteristic of thin-film panels is their ability to be deposited on flexible substrate materials. This means thin-film solar panels can be integrated into roofing tiles and other architectural products. Thin-film panels are also much lighter than traditional photovoltaics.
Creating Thin-Film Solar Panels
Like many new technologies not everything is positive. While thin-film solar panels can provide a “green” way to make electricity it’s important we realize their underlying environmental cost as well. Thin-film panels, like other solar panels, are very energy intensive to produce. They also require precious limited resources such as silicon, copper and cadmium.
Thin-Film vs. Traditional Solar Panels
While the efficiency of solar cells can vary widely from 6%, for amorphous silicon-based solar cells, to 42.8%, for non-commercial, multiple-junction research lab cells. The most common commercially available type of solar cell is the “Multicrystalline Si” which offers between 14-19% efficiency. While thin-film solar panels are catching up in efficiency, currently, they offer between 7-9% efficiency.
With Lower Efficiency Rates Why Should I Consider Thin-Film Panels?
Thin-film solar panels are lighter than traditional crystalline photovoltaic materials. Thanks to their lighter weight you can install them in a multitude of places you’d never be able to install traditional solar panels. Consider a roof installation, thin-film solar panels are simpler to install because you can avoid large, ugly and expensive roof mounted racks. Why would you want to install a rack when you can simply bond thin-film PV laminates to your roof? According to a recent Mother Earth News article it takes only “five to 10 minutes to apply each PV sheet to a roof panel.”
Thin-Film Solar Panel Pricing
If you are willing to trade the efficiency loss for more flexible installation options you will most likely be surprised to learn that thin-film panels are priced competitively when compared to similarly sized traditional solar panels. Depending upon where you purchase your panels you should find them priced between $4 to $5 per watt. Remember to include the installation cost into your total purchase price because thin-film solar panels require significantly less labor to install.
Solar Incentives and Rebates
Incentive and rebate programs vary greatly based on where you live but due to the volume available I encourage you to search for incentives and rebates online. The Database of State Incentives for Renewable & Efficiency (DSIRE), run by the North Carolina Solar Center, is a great place to start. You can find the DSIRE here:
While thin-film panels aren’t for everyone they can offer some people a flexible way to add solar power to their home or business. In today’s market, thin-film panels are already competitive and as technology improves you can expect their efficiency to increase. Solar panels can gradually reduce our dependence on fossil fuel based power. Residential electricity generated by fossil fuels is the 3rd largest contributor of CO2 emissions in the United States.
Do your part to fight global warming – by going solar.