Flexible solar panels are a useful alternative to the traditional solar panels you usually see on rooftops. Where traditional panels are rigid, flat, and heavy, flexible solar panels are lightweight and bendable. But are they any better than traditional panels? What are they used for? And just why are they flexible?
Why are some panels flexible?
Different manufacturing processes produce panels with different qualities. In flexible solar panels, solar cells are applied to a thin, flexible substrate (typically made of aluminum or plastic). Silicon (or another photovoltaic material) is applied to the substrate, and a transparent conductive layer is placed over it. A laminate (Teflon or a similar material) is then applied to the whole module to protect it from moisture.
Traditional solar panels are manufactured in basically the same way, but they use a thicker glass substrate and, as a result, are far thicker than flexible solar panels. In addition, they’re housed in an aluminum frame which makes it entirely impossible for them to bend.
Newer (and still-experimental) flexible solar panels are made of organic materials and graphene electrodes. Future advances will likely increase their efficiency, durability, and affordability.
What are the benefits and drawbacks of traditional solar panels?
Traditional solar panels are widely used because they have high efficiency rates－that is, they’re able to transform more of the sun’s energy into electricity than flexible solar panels. Since energy production is the main quality most people look for when installing home solar systems, traditional solar panels are the preferred option.
But traditional solar panels are heavier and more fragile than flexible solar panels. Both of these qualities mean that they’re also more difficult to mount and transport. This makes them undesirable in solar system projects located in remote regions disconnected from the grid.
Some of the most trusted manufacturers of traditional solar panels are SolarCity, SunPower, RGS Energy, and Vivint Solar.
What are the benefits and drawbacks of flexible solar panels?
Flexible solar panels are superior to their stiff counterparts in many ways. They’re lighter and thinner and, as their name implies, they have the ability to bend up to an average of 30 degrees.
Flexible solar panels are best for homes and buildings with roofs that can’t bear the weight of traditional solar panels. They’re also often found on RVs, boats, and off-grid applications. On RVs or certain buildings, their flexibility enables the panel to follow the contour of a curved roof.
Their light weight also makes them perfect for temporary or short-term use. Mobile chargers for phones, laptops, and other devices incorporate flexible solar panels, and they’re also used in military applications where traditional electrical sources are unavailable.
While flexible panels are potentially cheaper than rigid panels, they’re also slightly less efficient. Traditional panels are raised a few inches off the roof (or whatever surface they’re attached to) to allow air to flow beneath them, cooling the module. But flexible panels are often laid flush against a surface, which diminishes their energy efficiency.
For this reason, flexible panels typically have shorter warranty periods than traditional panels. Most flexible solar panels have warranties of just 5 years, while traditional panels are warrantied for at least 20 years.
There are a number of manufacturers selling flexible solar panels, including Go Power, Grape Solar, Eco-Worthy, and King Solar.
How much do they weigh?
The weight of a particular panel depends not only on whether it’s flexible or rigid, but also on its manufacturer and its energy output. Generally, though, flexible solar panels are about 75 percent lighter than rigid panels. The flexible Windynation 100-watt panel, for instance, weighs a little over 4 pounds. But the rigid Renogy 100-watt panel weighs over 16 pounds.
Cool. Anything else?
Future advances in flexible solar panel technology could make flexible panels cheaper and easier to manufacture than the rigid panels, but today’s flexible panels cost about the same per watt as traditional solar panels.
Both flexible solar panels and traditional ones have mixed records when it comes to overall sturdiness. Flexible panels tend to scratch more easily than traditional panels, but traditional panels－with their glass faces－are far more fragile.