In the scheme of things, the attraction that switching to solar power has is obvious: cleaner energy, less waste and an option that is definitely kinder to your pocket in the long term. But since the first commercially viable solar panels were made available to the public, the speed of technological advancement has made some of them obsolete. The second generation of solar cell technology – and now third generation – has resulted in higher efficiency, simpler installation and greater cost effectiveness.
The development of flexible solar panels in particular has served to revolutionize the industry. The more conventional solar panel arrays are rigid, often encased to protect the individual crystalline silicon cells from erosive elements such as wind and rain. They are also generally mounted on a rack, either on the wall of a building or on a roof. They can, of course, be constructed into the wall or roof, which is a costly exercise unless they are included in the blueprinted construction plans of the building.
However, flexible solar panel technology now allows solar panels to be printed directly onto material and literally rolled off the assembly line – like a newspaper sheet in a printing press. This development has been hailed as one of the most significant breakthroughs in recent years. While it has been accomplished in small measures already (the solar strip in calculators is a prime example of this technology), it has not been available on this scale until relatively recently.
Flexible solar panels make full use of thin film technology, which sees light-absorbing materials coated onto supporting substrates like glass, plastics and ceramics. There are a number of materials used but the most successful to date are cadmium tulleride (CdTe) and amorphous silicon. The materials are coated onto surfaces through new processes such as vapor deposition or electroplating, manufacturing techniques that also reduce the cost of production.
However, the real advantage of flexible solar panels is the variety of shapes and sizes that they can be produced in, allowing them to fit anywhere. Traditionally, a solar panel is square or rectangular but since the technology is coated onto a surface, the surface itself can be any shape. It could be anything, from square panels on the roof of a car to circular panels within a wheel. Experts agree that that is one of the most exciting aspects of the development.
Flexible solar panels can also be printed in a roll-to-roll technique that further reduces cost and increases the rate of production. They are also available in laminate form, allowing them to be ‘stuck’ to surfaces and then wired to appliances or systems to power them. It makes the installation of the solar power system even less costly.
However, the main disadvantage of the flexible solar panel is that its efficiency is much less than the conventional rigid panels. While rigid silicon panels can reach as high as 20 percent efficiency in converting sunlight, flexible panels can be less than 10 per cent.
What is important to you, the consumer, is whether or not this technology can be of benefit to you, and further reduce household energy bills. The fact is that for a decent solar panel system for your home or business you will have to pay in the tens of thousands of dollars, and while this will prove a wise investment over time, the immediate capital can be hard to come by. Flexible solar panels promise such a reduction is cost that getting the capital should no longer be a huge problem.
Solar technology is advancing quickly and there is little doubt that within a few years the standard for solar power systems will be with flexible solar panels, which anyone can spread over their roof or along their house wall, if they wish.
There is little doubt that over time flexible solar panel efficiency rates will improve greatly, saving your money, but for the time being the promise of the technology is exciting enough.