The demand for solar power is at an all-time high in the United States. And one of the exciting waves of the future is all about flexible solar panels.
Between the years of 2010 and 2014, installed solar energy in this country increased by a whopping 418 percent, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
In just four short years, we increased more than 9,000 megawatts of solar energy.
That's a ton!
There is no doubt that solar technology is very popular and growing. And one of the reasons for that is technological advancements like flexible solar panels.
So are flexible solar panels right for you? How do they compare with traditional solar panels?
Well, let's see if we can answer those questions today.
And stick with me until the end because I'm going to talk about what the future looks like in the flexible solar panel industry.
What Are Flexible Solar Panels?
The most abundant energy resource on the planet is solar power. According to the Scientific American journal, solar energy “dwarfs all the other renewable energy resources combined — including wind, hydropower and geothermal."
MIT says, “More solar energy strikes the surface of the earth in one hour than is provided by all of the fossil energy consumed globally in a year.”
In fact, at any given moment there are 173,000 terawatts of solar energy continuously hitting the planet. To put that into some perspective, that's more than 10,000 times the total energy usage of the entire world.
One of the best sources of clean, renewable energy currently available is solar panels. But traditional solar panels don't work for everyone.
Some of the complaints about solar panels are that they are expensive and big and bulky. They're also quite heavy.
Are there other options?
There sure are!
Flexible solar panels
Flexible solar panels, also called thin-film solar cells, have been gaining in popularity because they work much better for many people than rigid solar panels.
For some comparison, traditional solar panels are either monocrystalline or polycrystalline.
Both of them feature silicon wafers that are typically around 200 micrometers thick. That's just slightly thicker than a human hair.
Flexible solar panels, on the other hand, slice down those silicon wafer cells to just a few micrometers wide. By using those super thin cells, it allows the panel to become flexible. That means that you can use it for far more applications.
The flexible panels are also much cheaper to produce and install.
Check out the video below:
When they make flexible solar panels, they apply the solar cells to a super thin, flexible substrate, usually made of plastic or aluminum.
Then they apply a photovoltaic material like silicon to the substrate.
After that, a conductive transparent layer covers the whole thing. The final step is to protect the entire module from moisture by applying a laminate like Teflon over it.
Different Types of Solar Panels
Now let's take a closer look at the different types of solar panels.
Monocrystalline solar panels contain solar cells made from the purest form of silicon. They are very efficient and long-lasting, especially when compared to the polycrystalline panels.
The downside is that they are quite a bit more expensive.
You can tell that a solar panel is monocrystalline if it has rounded angles with a monochromatic, darker appearance.
They make polycrystalline solar panels by melting raw silicon. This process is much faster and cheaper than the way they make the monocrystalline panels.
That means that they are less expensive than monocrystalline panels.
The downside of the polycrystalline solar panels is that they are less powerful and less space efficient.
You can spot the polycrystalline panels by their square cut and speckled blue color.
These are the cheapest solar panels on the market today. One of the reasons for that is that they require far fewer materials to make.
That makes them cheaper to produce.
The great thing about them is that they are super flexible.
Thin film panels are way more versatile, and they are even more resistant to very high temperatures. They're also much lighter and portable.
The downside of them is that they take up a lot of space. They also have shorter life spans and come with shorter warranties. But if you have a lot of space, they are an excellent alternative to monocrystalline or polycrystalline panels.
Believe it or not:
Thin film solar panels have been around for over three decades. They first showed up in solar calculators. Remember those?
These days we are using them in much larger systems. You can find them on buildings, solar farms, and even some vehicles.
The Best Uses for Flexible Solar Panels
An on-the-go portable power source for things like RVs, boats, and cars
You can use them to charge solar batteries
Off-grid PV systems for cabins and homes
They are very common in many new solar energy consumer products
Great for use when hiking, cycling, kayaking, and camping
The Efficiency Difference Between Flexible Solar Panels and Traditional Solar Panels
"THE MOST EFFICIENT SOLAR PANELS ON THE MARKET TODAY HAVE EFFICIENCY RATINGS AS HIGH AS 22.2%, WHEREAS THE MAJORITY OF PANELS RANGE FROM 15% TO 17% EFFICIENCY RATING.
SUNPOWER PANELS ARE KNOWN FOR BEING THE MOST EFFICIENT SOLAR PANEL BRAND AVAILABLE ON THE MARKET."
One of the differences shows up in their energy efficiency.
As we just discussed, flexible solar panels are less efficient than rigid panels.
On average, monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels get between 15 to 20 percent efficiency ratings. Flexible panels, on the other hand, only get around 11 to 13 percent efficiency ratings.
Monocrystalline and Polycrystalline Panels
Flexible Solar Panels
Because of that lower efficiency, you will need more of the flexible panels to produce the same amount of energy. If you have limited roof space, that can be a problem.
When you are trying to decide between rigid and flexible solar panels, you should consider how you want to use them.
The best uses for flexible panels are for small projects on surfaces like RVs, boats, and cars that don't require a ton of energy. They're also ideal for things like camping or hiking when you need a lightweight, portable energy source.
How Much Do Flexible Solar Panels Weigh?
The weight of solar panels depends on a few things.
First, are they traditional solar panels or flexible solar panels?
That will make a big difference. Other factors include the individual manufacturer and the energy output.
Generally speaking, flexible solar panels weigh about 75 percent less than rigid panels.
For example, when we take a look at the flexible Windynation 100-watt panel, it weighs just over four pounds. For some comparison, a 100-watt rigid panel from Renogy weighs over 16 pounds.
The Pros and Cons of Traditional Solar Panels
Modern day solar panels actually made their debut in space!
The first commercial use of solar energy happened in 1958 when NASA used solar panels on the satellite "Vanguard 1."
Following Vanguard 1, NASA launched several more satellites using solar technology. Those early panels lasted around seven years. At the time, that was huge. By comparison, the regular batteries that they were using at the time on satellites lasted only 20 hours.
The Vanguard 1 is still orbiting the Earth today.
"THIRD GENERATION PREFERS ADVANCED THIN-FILM CELLS. COMPARED TO OTHER SOLAR TECHNOLOGIES, THEY PRODUCE RELATIVELY HIGH-EFFICIENCY CONVERSION FOR LOW COST. THEY CAN BE RIGID OR FLEXIBLE. FLEXIBLE FILMS ARE PORTABLE AND LIGHTER THAN RIGID FILMS, AND RESISTANT TO BREAKAGE THAN ORDINARY CRYSTALLINE ONES."
The Pros and Cons of Flexible Solar Panels
Check out the following video:
So How Much Do Flexible Solar Panels Cost?
With traditional solar panels, about a third of their production cost comes from the photovoltaic material.
The rest of the price comes from the bulky glass structure.
By printing the flexible solar panels on more accessible materials, which are cheaper, the overall price goes down significantly.
Here's a tool that you can use to get an idea of how much it would cost you to go solar.
Top 6 Producers of Flexible Solar Panels
First Solar - First Solar produces some of the highest efficiency rates. And they make some of the most durable and cheapest thin-film panels on the market for commercial buyers.
SoloPower - The SoloPower flexible solar panels are perfect for mounting on all sides of a building, rather than on top. They're excellent for integrating into the building's structure
Sharp - This Japanese company has been around for a long time. They were one of the original pioneers with modern solar power way back in the 1950s. They continue to innovate flexible solar panels technology today.
Solar Frontier - Solar Frontier is another top manufacturer of flexible solar panels. They are currently working on a thin-film panel with 30 percent efficiency. That's by far the most efficient in the industry to date.
JinkoSolar - This company is a worldwide leader in solar technology. They claim the most efficient and sustainable solar solutions on the market.
SunTech - SunTech has been around since 2001. And they are aiming to optimize solar technology and provide it across the globe.
9 Things You Need to Know Before Switching to Solar Panels
Now I'm going to blow your mind. Take a guess when solar technology first showed up in the world.
Did you guess the 1900s? The 1800s?
Nope! Not even close.
Believe it or not, solar technology was first utilized way back in 7 BC! Yes, really!
Back then people used mirrors and glass to harness the energy of the sun to make fire.
Modern solar systems showed up in 1839. A French scientist named Edmond Becquerel defined the photovoltaic effect which was a pivotal development in solar technology.
1. Your utility company's rates
Make sure that you understand how your utility company calculates your rate.
In many places, utility rates use different "tiers."
Homes that consume more energy are bumped up to a higher tier. That means that they will pay a higher rate.
Here's an example of what I'm talking about here:
In the San Francisco Bay area, an average monthly bill from PG&E costs around $90. However, if your bill goes above $237, then you are bumped up to Tier 5, where the rates are higher.
Ready for some good news?
If a San Francisco PG&E customer switches to solar power, they completely remove the top tiers.
The bottom line is that the more you are currently spending on your electric bill, the bigger your return on investment will be when you go solar.
2. What about solar batteries?
Unless you are trying to create a self-contained home or compound, you really don't have to worry too much about batteries.
If you live in a populated area and you are staying on the grid, then you will continue to get some of your power, especially at night, from your local utility company, just like you do now. You just won't be using as much.
One important thing that you need to know is:
Most of the rebate incentives tied to going solar won't trigger unless your system is on the grid.
3. How much energy does your home consume each month?
Here's what you should know:
Different families are going to have different needs when it comes to energy.
Some will use more than others.
The best thing that you can do is to get a solar installer to calculate your projected electricity demands, rather than your current energy usage.
Another thing that you can do is to make energy-saving changes and upgrades throughout your home to lower your cost. Changing to LED bulbs is one example of that.
4. Do the solar panels have to be on a south-facing roof area?
Ideally, you want your solar panels to be on the southwest-facing part of your roof. That is true.
But does that mean that you can't use solar panels if you can't get them facing southwest?
I'm going to tell you something that most solar salesmen won't tell you.
The direction that your solar panels face is not critical.
In fact, if your panels face south, they will work. If they face west, they will work.
Now I'm going to blow your mind.
Even if they face southeast, east, or north-northwest, they will still work.
The top three solar countries in the world are:
By 2016, China was boasting that they had installed an impressive 43.5 gigawatts of solar energy.
Japan comes in at a close second with 43 gigawatts of solar energy. And Germany is not far behind with 39.5 gigawatts.
The U.S. has some catching up to do!
5. Will solar panels make my property tax go up?
This is important:
And it is a very common question when people are considering going solar.
The answer is....
Switching to solar power will not trigger a reassessment of your property.
Generally speaking, reassessments of property taxes happen because of increasing the square footage of your structure. That would be for things like room additions or other construction, not for using solar power.
In most states, even if there were a property assessment triggered, the addition of solar panels are exempt from property taxes.
6. Protect your investment
Okay, this is a big one:
It is critical that you protect your new solar system from fire or other damages. As soon as you install your solar panels, you need to call your homeowner's insurance company. They will amend your policy to include the solar system.
You will have a slight increase in your property insurance.
When I say slight, I'm talking about less than $10 a month.
7. What about warranties?
Typically there are two different types of warranties offered with solar systems.
The first type is a manufacturer's warranty covering the panel and inverter. Usually, these warranties will cover your panel and inverter for around 25 years.
The next type of warranty comes from the installer. This warranty will cover the quality of their work. It will generally protect you for 2 to 10 years, assuring that the installation won't leave holes in your roof that could lead to leaks.
One thing that you need to know though is that neither of those warranties will cover you from theft, fire, or other damages. Remember what I said a minute ago about covering your solar panels with your homeowner's insurance? I was serious about that.
8. How long do flexible solar panels last?
Traditional solar panels will last longer than flexible solar panels.
Flexible solar panels will generally last from 5 to 10 years.
Rigid panels, on the other hand, will last for around 30 years, sometimes even longer.
The rigid panels will also lose about 1/2 a percent of conversion efficiency each year.
One thing that you can do to assure that your solar panels work correctly is to hose them off a few times during the summer months. It's also a good idea to keep the leaves off of them in the fall. That's basically all the maintenance they need.
Not too bad, right?
9. Your roof type can affect the cost of installation
Your roof type will not be too important when it comes to installing flexible solar panels. You can easily add them to just about any surface.
Unfortunately, that is not the case for traditional solar panels.
If you are installing rigid panels, then your roof type will matter. In fact, it could make a huge difference in the cost of your installation.
If you have Spanish tiles or shake on your roof, it will cost you a lot more for installation than it would if you had plain old asphalt shingles.
The reason for that is tile and shake are far more brittle than asphalt. So it takes extra care and time to attach the panels to them. The extra time will increase your installation cost by 10 to 25 percent.
The Exciting Future of Flexible Solar Panels
Flexible solar panels right now are one thing. But the flexible solar panels that are coming in the near future are something way more exciting.
Imagine having solar panels on all windows and walls and cell phones and laptops and so much more.
New technology is coming, my friends.
The new flexible panels will be transparent, and they can be attached to just about anything.
MIT has developed a new transparent solar cell that will very likely be the wave of the future.
MIT's new technology combines low-cost organic material with graphene electrodes. Graphene is a transparent, flexible material made from carbon sources, which are both abundant and inexpensive.
According to MIT,
"THIS ADVANCE IN SOLAR TECHNOLOGY WAS ENABLED BY A NOVEL METHOD OF DEPOSITING A ONE-ATOM-THICK LAYER OF GRAPHENE ONTO THE SOLAR CELL — WITHOUT DAMAGING NEARBY SENSITIVE ORGANIC MATERIALS.
UNTIL NOW, DEVELOPERS OF TRANSPARENT SOLAR CELLS HAVE TYPICALLY RELIED ON EXPENSIVE, BRITTLE ELECTRODES THAT TEND TO CRACK WHEN THE DEVICE IS FLEXED.
THE ABILITY TO USE GRAPHENE INSTEAD IS MAKING POSSIBLE TRULY FLEXIBLE, LOW-COST, TRANSPARENT SOLAR CELLS THAT CAN TURN VIRTUALLY ANY SURFACE INTO A SOURCE OF ELECTRIC POWER."
The advantages of these new transparent flexible solar panels are that they will be cheaper and easier to manufacture. That will make the cost come way down. They will also be lightweight and extremely portable, even in remote areas with no central power grid.
That's not all:
Organic solar cells can mount on any and all surfaces around you. And they will be able to harvest energy without us even noticing them.
Researchers are currently trying to improve the efficiency of graphene-based organic solar cells without losing any of the transparency.
The idea is that these new flexible solar panels can be placed everywhere to generate clean power while remaining virtually invisible to the human eye.
Solar powered contact lenses??
Sounds crazy, right?
But it's true, and it's the future!
In 2015 Google filed a patent for contact lenses that are solar powered. The possibilities for this new technology are amazing!
Google says that these new contact lenses could:
How cool is that?
Google is placing a tiny computer chip onto a photovoltaic contact lens. And more new inventions like this are on the horizon!
Cool Deal! Anything Else?
There are definitely exciting times ahead for solar technology, especially for flexible solar panels.
But for the time being, there are still some improvements that need to occur. It's true that flexible solar panels are cheaper than traditional rigid panels, but the price still needs to come down to make them more competitive in the market.
Now that doesn't mean that you should totally avoid flexible solar panels right now. I'm not saying that at all. There are many uses for them already.
For one thing, if you're looking for a short-term temporary energy source that you can just roll up and transport anywhere, then they are perfect.
Flexible solar panels are excellent for camping, for example. And they work great on boats, RVs, and cars. They're also ideal for anyone that has a roof that cannot support the heavy weight of rigid solar panels.
But just know that technology is only going to get better from here.
The fact is:
The solar industry is one of the fastest growing sectors in the United States. In 2015 the solar industry employed 175,000 Americans.
And that's not all.
The solar industry contributes more than $15 billion to the U.S. economy every year. With over 6,000 solar companies in the country, they are currently supplying over 17,500 MW of cumulative solar electric capacity. That's enough to give power to more than 3.5 million American homes!
Now we'd love to hear from you guys! Share with our readers your experience or tips with solar energy or flexible solar panels in the comments section below.