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An Overview Of Thin Film Solar Panels

Updated: Mar 25

thin film solar panels

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

What Are 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.

Researchers at MIT have developed ultralight fabric solar cells that can be easily applied to any surface, making it a portable and versatile power source. These thin and flexible solar cells, which are thinner than human hair, can be integrated into various objects such as sails, tents, and even the wings of drones. The solar cells are highly efficient, generating 18 times more power per kilogram compared to conventional solar panels, and are made using scalable printing processes.

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, but this could change as thin film solar technology advances.

What Are Thin Film Solar Panels Made Of?

Thin film solar panels consist of thin layers of various photovoltaic materials deposited on a substrate, such as glass, plastic, or metal. These layers are typically only a few nanometers to a few microns thick, considerably thinner than the wafers used in traditional solar panels.

There are different kinds of materials used for thin film solar panels, some of which include:

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 Of Current Thin Film Solar Panels

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.

Pros of Thin Film Solar Vs. Conventional Solar Panels

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

Easier Thin Film 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.

Lower Cost

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.

Greater Versatility

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 Performance 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.

Shorter 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.

Cons of Thin Film Solar Panels Vs. Conventional Solar Panels

Although thin film solar has many benefits, it also has some drawbacks. However, researchers are working to overcome some of its disadvantages, 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 decrease performance and shorten the overall lifespan of about 10 to 20 years. In particular, OPV has a shorter lifespan than crystalline and other thin film technologies.

Lower Solar Panel Efficiency

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.

Uses 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 power irrigation systems in agricultural settings, helping to reduce dependence on polluting fossil fuels. They can also be integrated into greenhouses, providing electricity for lighting, ventilation, and other equipment.

Thin film solar PV can provide a solution for agrivoltaic projects that are currently limited by traditional, rigid solar panels. Due to the difficulty of positioning and the heavy weight of rigid solar panels, farmers implementing an agrivoltaic solution may have to pass on the project altogether. Thin-film solar PV can solve such issues as it is lightweight, flexible, and adaptable while generating greater energy and water savings and healthier crop yields.

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.

Which is Better, Thin Film or Monocrystalline Solar Panels?

Monocrystalline solar panels are generally considered better than thin film panels due to their higher efficiency and more compact design. Monocrystalline panels have a higher energy conversion rate, making them more space-efficient, especially for small roofs. While thin film panels are lighter and can be flexible, monocrystalline panels offer superior performance and are more commonly used in residential and commercial solar installations.

Can I Walk on Thin Film Solar Panels?

In general, it is not a good idea to walk on thin film solar panels because they are typically more fragile and less durable than traditional crystalline silicon panels. Walking or putting weight on thin film panels can lead to damage, affecting their energy performance and potentially causing electrical issues. It's essential to follow the manufacturer's guidelines and recommendations regarding handling and maintenance to ensure the longevity and efficiency of thin film solar panels.

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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