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  • Writer's pictureSarah Lozanova

An Overview Of Thin-Film Solar Panels

Close up view of a hand holding a small solar cell or panel.

Although the thin-film solar market has amazing potential, it currently makes up a small fraction of the solar energy market. However, this is likely to shift in the near future, with some solar industry experts expecting thin-film solar to have a large market share in the near future.

The Cadmium Telluride Accelerator Consortium (CATC), administered by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), is a 3-year initiative to accelerate the development of CdTe solar technologies. Its goal is to make CdTe thin-film solar cells more efficient and economical and to create new markets for thin-film solar products.

A Brief Explanation Of Thin-Film Solar Panels

Unlike traditional solar panels, which are made of crystalline silicon, thin-film solar panels are composed of several layers of light-absorbing materials, such as amorphous silicon, CdTe, or copper indium gallium selenide. These materials are deposited onto a substrate, often glass, metal, or plastic.

Thin-film PV modules can be made lightweight, bendable, and even transparent, enabling integration into various surfaces and applications. While thin-film solar panels have advantages in aesthetics, cost, and versatility, they generally have a lower energy conversion efficiency rating than crystalline silicon panels.

Types Of Thin-Film Solar Cells

These are some of the most common types of thin-film solar cells available today:

  • Amorphous Silicon (a-Si): These photovoltaic cells use non-crystalline silicon as the semiconductor material. They are flexible, lightweight, and can be produced at low costs, but they are less efficient than other thin-film modules.

  • Cadmium Telluride (CdTe): CdTe solar cells are composed of a thin layer of cadmium telluride semiconductor. They have high absorption coefficients and can achieve high conversion efficiencies. CdTe cells are cost-effective and have been widely deployed in utility-scale solar installations, but cadmium is toxic, so it has environmental concerns.

  • Copper Indium Gallium Selenide (CIGS): CIGS panels are made from a combination of copper, indium, gallium, and selenium and can be deposited on flexible substrates. CIGS thin film panels offer advantages such as high-absorption coefficients, better low-light performance, and excellent temperature coefficients (so they perform well in hot weather). However, they are more expensive than other thin-film solar technologies.

  • Organic Photovoltaic (OPV): These solar cells are made with organic semiconducting materials. OPV cells are lightweight, flexible, and can be manufactured using low-cost printing techniques. Although the cells have lower efficiencies compared to other thin-film technologies, they have the potential for integration into various applications due to their flexibility, such as Building-Integrated Photovoltaics.

Pros And Cons To Current Thin-Film Cell Technology

There are many different types of thin-film solar, and the advantages and disadvantages do vary somewhat among the different types of solar panels. We’ve outlined some general pros and cons below.


Because thin-film solar has so many positive qualities, it has enormous potential.

Manufacturing Process

Although it varies a bit by the technology and substrate, thin-film solar is usually easier to manufacture. In fact, scaling up domestic thin-film production could positively impact the quest for U.S. energy independence.


Thin-film PV cells require less semiconductor material compared to crystalline solar panels and are easier to manufacture. As a result, they have lower production costs than crystalline solar.


Thin-film cells can be manufactured on flexible substrates, allowing for more versatile applications. They can be integrated into curved surfaces or even clothing, expanding the possibilities for solar energy production.

Resource Consumption

Conventional silicon solar panels require more resources than thin-film solar. Silicon-based panels require high-purity silicon, which is energy-intensive to produce and requires complex manufacturing processes. By contrast, thin-film solar panels can be produced using less material, reducing the demand for scarce resources.

Low-Light Performance

Thin-film solar cells typically perform better in low-light conditions, such as cloudy weather or shaded surfaces. This makes them more suitable for locations with less favorable weather conditions or some shading from trees and buildings.

Better In Hot Weather

Solar panels tend to produce less electricity when temperatures rise above 77° F or 25° C. However, thin-film solar cells are not typically as susceptible to a decrease in energy production in hot weather.

Energy Payback Period

Thin film solar panels have a shorter energy payback time compared to silicon panels. Energy payback time refers to the period required for a solar panel to generate the same amount of energy that was used during its manufacturing process.


Although there are many benefits to thin-film solar, there are also some drawbacks. However, researchers are working to overcome some of the disadvantages of thin-film solar, so innovation may mitigate these in the future.

Shorter Lifespan Than Crystalline Solar Panels

Some thin-film technologies are more prone to degradation over time due to light-induced degradation or moisture absorption. This degradation can result in a decrease in performance and an overall lifespan of about 10 to 20 years. In particular, OPV has a shorter lifespan than crystalline and other thin-film technologies.


Currently, thin-film solar cells usually have lower conversion efficiency than crystalline solar panels. This means they generate less renewable energy from a given surface area, requiring larger installations to produce the same amount of solar power. This is most disadvantageous when space is limited.

Applications For Thin-Film Solar Panels

The characteristics of thin-film solar panels are well-suited for a wide range of applications, which is why the technology has such vast potential.

Building-Integrated Photovoltaics (BIPV)

Thin-film solar panels can be seamlessly integrated into building materials, such as windows, facades, roofs, and even flexible surfaces like curtains or awnings. This integration allows buildings to generate electricity while maintaining aesthetic appeal, enabling greater adoption of solar energy by the construction industry.

Portable And Wearable Devices

The flexibility and lightweight nature of thin-film solar cells make them ideal for portable and wearable applications. They can be incorporated into backpacks, tents, camping gear, and even clothing to provide power.


Thin-film solar panels can be applied to the surfaces of vehicles, including cars, buses, trains, and bicycles. They can generate electricity to power onboard systems, such as air conditioning, lighting, and entertainment, reducing reliance on fossil fuel energy sources and boosting clean energy adoption.

Consumer Electronics

Their thin and flexible nature makes them suitable for integration into consumer electronic devices, such as smartphones, tablets, e-book readers, and smartwatches. By incorporating thin-film solar panels into the design of these electronics, it is possible to extend battery life or provide supplementary power for charging, reducing the need for external power sources.

Agricultural Applications

Thin-film solar panels can be used to power irrigation systems in agricultural settings, helping to reduce the dependence on polluting fossil fuels. They can also be integrated into greenhouses, providing electricity for lighting, ventilation, and other equipment.

Military And Defense

Because they can be used to power remote surveillance systems, communication equipment, and other devices in the field, thin-film solar cells have potential applications in military and defense settings. Their lightweight and flexible design makes them easy to deploy and integrate into various military structures and equipment.

Disaster Relief In Developing Countries

Thin-film solar panels can play a critical role in providing power in developing countries with limited access to reliable electricity. They can be used to set up small-scale solar systems for community electrification, lighting, and charging stations. In disaster relief situations, thin-film solar panels can quickly power emergency shelters and critical infrastructure when the grid is down.

Conclusion: Thin-Film Solar Panels Could Gain Market Share In The Next Decades

Despite thin-film solar having a small market share today, it will likely increase in the future. Although it has many very appealing qualities, there are some disadvantages that researchers can hopefully overcome quickly. Refining the technology to boost efficiency and lifespan would enable thin-film solar cells to be widely used in numerous applications.

Are you interested in working with the latest solar power technologies? Partner with GreenLancer to bring our vast expertise to your next innovative solar project.

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