Solar market isn’t limited to what we know as rigid panels which are our standard mono- and polycrystalline modules that we try to fit on the roof. Flexible solar panels are a third prominent type of photovoltaics and the most special amongst them. It is not their efficiency or durability that stands out. The most amazing thing about them is that you can bend them, which allows you sometimes to ignore the complications of an imperfect surface. In this article we’ll talk in detail about the advantages of this type and make a list of what could be the best flexible solar panels in 2021.
Benefits of Flexible Solar Panels
Our customers often ask us about thin-film panels and what makes them good. Indeed, they are quite a special type. Here are the qualities that stand out the most about them:
Let’s start with the price. Thin-film panels are the cheapest of all. The downside to that is their lower efficiency and lifespan. Besides, they are rarely powerful: most modules are 100-200W. However, the cost and the simplicity of installation make thin-film modules popular in utility-scale installations, simply because it’s fairly cheap to build a system of a decent output with them if the space isn’t an issue. The price also makes it easy to replace broken modules.
When it comes to size and weight, thin-film panels really start to shine. They are incredibly light and thin, which makes it easy to store and transport or carry them. The average thickness of a panel is around 1 in. One module weighs around 4-8 lbs. Overall a thin-film panel weighs about 10%-20% of a rigid PV module. As a result, a set of thin-film panels add much less weight to your roof or an RV than an array of standard rigid panels would.
Installation of thin-film panels is the simplest of all three prominent types. Thin-film photovoltaics are so light that you can easily attach them to any surface with some sort of adhesive. Even duct tape works. Oftentimes these panels have grommet holes in the corners that allow you to easily pass cords and wires through without harming the panel. The flexibility of the modules also makes the installation easier, because you can put them on surfaces that aren’t necessarily flat. Now that we’ve finished with the benefits of flexible solar panels, let’s compare them to the rigid modules.
Flexible solar panels vs rigid
To make our article more sound and objective, let’s talk about how thin-film panels compare to standard rigid panels. We’ll look at their price, installation process simplicity, efficiency and lifespan more precisely.
Thin-film photovoltaics are much cheaper than monocrystalline or even polycrystalline panels. While a monocrystalline module can cost anywhere between $150-300, a thin-film panel price may range from $40 to $100 — around two-four times cheaper than rigid monocrystalline models. Low price allows replacing broken panels easier. However, there are thin-film modules of a higher price tier, like models from Renogy and KingSolar with the price well over $150.
It is much simpler to install flexible panels than rigid ones. The weight of a thin-module makes it okay to use simple glues whereas with rigid modules drilling is oftentimes the only option. You can drill into the laminate of a thin-film panel, but it is not always required. The flexibility allows you to put these panels anywhere — the surface doesn’t have to be perfect. Overall it makes flexible panels much more popular among boat and RV owners. Keep in mind, however, that just like any other PV module, a thin-film panel tends to heat up under the sun. If there isn’t any air circulation underneath the panel to cool it down, then at high temperatures the panel loses efficiency, degrades a little faster, plus it heats up your camper van or a boat.
Monocrystalline panels are by far superior to thin-film ones. The efficiency of flexible panels before was usually only at 10-13%, whereas with rigid panels it easily goes over 20% lately. Besides, the wattage of thin-film panels is usually only at 100W-200W. To build an installation of a substantial power output with them, you need a lot of modules and a lot of space. However, solar technologies continue to develop and right now the efficiency of thin-film photovoltaics has risen by a lot. Now it seems that a lot of them are capable of reaching 20% efficiency as well. We can expect the efficiency of photovoltaics to continue its growth in the future.
Thin-film panels' life is considerably shorter than the lifespan of rigid panels. You can expect a rigid module to last 25 years easily — that’s just when its warranty wears off. However, you can’t expect the same level of durability out of the flexible panel. Generally, its lifespan is 10-15 years. Some companies, like Rich Solar, do offer 25 year performance warranties for some of their products, but the product warranty is usually no more than 5 years.
As you can see, there isn’t a “better” type of solar panels: rigid and flexible panels both have their pros and cons. It is possible to say that thin-film panels are much more specific: there are certain situations where they are especially good, but in others going for them doesn’t make much sense. Let’s now look at our list.
Best flexible solar panels
The market of flexible photovoltaics is quite different from the one of rigid PV modules. The brands are completely different and the prices are as well. The customers are different too: while homeowners generally prefer rigid modules, the qualities of thin-film panels attract more boondockers and sailors. Don’t think that it is a small audience — in the United States about 11% of all families own an RV. Obviously, these customers look for different things in PV modules than homeowners.
For campers and sailors the space is almost always a limited resource, so they are extra concerned about the dimensions and weight of panels. Durability is also important, especially for sailors, because not every panel tolerates salt water well. On the other hand, there aren’t a lot of appliances in vans and yachts and you generally don’t need a lot of energy to power them. Therefore power output requirements from customers for thin-film panels are generally lower than it is the case with residential systems and their seekers. And of course with off-grid systems, which are RV and boat installations, net metering is out of the question. Extra energy cannot be spent without the purchase of additional batteries or appliances, so campers and sailors try to get just enough power for everything without going overboard.
Renogy 100W 12V panel
Renogy models are always among top flexible solar panels. This particular model shows unprecedented flexibility of 248 degrees. Not only flex allows for simple installation, it also increases the portability of a module. Some owners claim that they can simply roll it and carry it around this way. For a thin-film panel, it is quite expensive with the current price on Amazon being over $180. It is 0.1 inch tall and its weight is only 4 lbs. The panel is quite durable and can handle wind load of 2400 Pa and 5400 Pa from snow.
ALLPOWERS Solar Panel 100W
What strikes about AllPowers panel is the manufacturer’s claim that the module reaches 23.5% efficiency with 32 solar cells. The efficiency of flexible panels is generally much lower than the one of rigid panels, and 23.5% is a lot even for the most advanced and expensive monocrystalline modules, which makes this number hard to believe. If it holds true, however, then you get a lot of energy from a square foot, much more than you would with models from other companies. What is more, the panel is durable and offers 30 degree flexibility. The dimensions are 41 in by 21 in by 0.09 inches and the panel weighs mere 4.7 lbs.
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