There are several different types of solar panels available on the market today. The three main categories are monocrystalline, polycrystalline and thin film solar panels, which differ based on the purity of the material they are made of (usually silicon). While mono- and polycrystalline panels are quite similar except for small details - the monocrystalline models are slightly more space efficient and powerful - the thin film panels are a completely different category.
Different types of solar panels
- Monocrystalline: these panels contain solar cells made of the purest kind of silicon. That makes them a more efficient, compact and lasting option than the polycrystalline models, but also more expensive. You can recognize them by the rounded angles and dark, monochromatic look.
- Polycrystalline: you can differentiate these panels from monocrystalline ones because of the square-cut solar cells and blue, speckled color. These solar panels are made by melting raw silicon, a process that is cheaper and quicker than their monocrystalline competitors, thus making them less expensive. On the other hand, polycrystalline panels are slightly less space efficient and powerful.
- Thin Film: since they need much less material to be manufactured and can exploit economies of scale, these are the cheapest solar panels on the market. Their flexibility makes them much more versatile and less affected by high temperatures than other panels. However, solar systems composed of these panels take up a lot of space, which makes them more suitable for commercial purposes or solar farms. They also carry shorter warranties than other solar panels, because of their short lifespan. They are a great option where a lot of space is available.
History of flexible solar panels
Thin film cells have been in use for more than 30 years. Their first application was the solar calculator, which contained a small quantity of amorphous silicon. Now, much larger systems are used for building integrated systems, solar farms and next-generation vehicles. Even though this technology was expected to surpass the dominating competitors, namely the crystalline silicon models, its market share has been declining for years. That is mostly due to the drop in crystalline silicon panels’ prices that was led by the cheap Chinese competition. The price difference between crystalline silicon panels and thin film panels is now lower (it dropped from 30% to 18%) which discouraged the installation of flexible panels, but there are other advantages beside price that should be considered.
Flexible solar panels explained
Thin film solar panels come from a second generation solar cell, which is made by layering one or more thin films of photovoltaic material on a “base”, a substrate of plastic, glass or metal. The final result is a panel much thinner than the average of mono and polycrystalline solar panels, which makes them flexible and lighter. That means the roof has to support a very light structure without racks. Producing these panels also has a lower cost, so the final price is very competitive.
Moreover, thin film panels have a special, layered configuration that exploits different materials’ light absorption, so that the cells don’t lose as much efficiency as traditional ones when shadowed by clouds. The downside is that flexible solar panels are less efficient and occupy much more space than their competitors, making them more suitable for commercial than residential purposes. In fact, the world’s biggest solar farms are made of thin film panels. Another issue is that these panels have a shorter lifespan than traditional PV.
However, this technology is very versatile and has many applications. It can be used to make solar panels: in that case the thin film is sandwiched between two panels of glass. Thin film can also be used to build integrated photovoltaics and as a glazing material that can be applied to windows.
- Cadmium Telluride: this is the most used material in thin film production, accounting for almost half of its total. Recently, solar efficiency of these cells has risen and is almost equal to that of polycrystalline silicon. Another salient feature of CdTe is that it has the lowers payback of all solar technologies, as low as 8 months in good locations.
- Copper Iridium Gallium Selenide: the main difference from the previous material is the absence of heavy metals such as Cadmium. CIGS cells are also being developed towards silicon-like efficiency, with much lower prices due to the lower quantity of materials used.
- Amorphous Silicon: this is a non-crystalline version of silicon that is a great alternative to the traditional “wafer” material. Devices built with amorphous silicon show less issues than other thin film technologies, because they are not affected by humidity and contain no toxic materials. They are also the greenest option, since their production does not harm the environment.
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