Thin Film Solar Panels

Thin film is a generic term for photovoltaic solar panels made from one on these materials:

  • Amorphous Silicon (a-Si)
  • Cadmium Telluride (CdTe)
  • Copper Indium Selenide (CIGS)

Thin film solar panels make up about 5% of the solar panel market. They are quite popular in large solar farms, but pretty rare in the residential market.

A thin film solar panel farm

 Thin film technology was developed in an effort to make solar panels at a lower cost. A few years ago when the silicon used to make mono and multicrystalline panels was expensive it looked like it could be a real winner. However, silicon is now dirt cheap so a lot of the business cases for thin film solar panels are starting to look a bit flimsy.

I wrote a blog post in 2011 explaining why I’m not a huge fan of these modules for residential applications, but they do have some advantages.

The Advantages of thin film solar panels:

  • Their power output is less affected by high temperatures
  • They use less materials in manufacturing
  • They can look very “clean”, and can be bent into all sorts of cool looking shapes.
  • They work well in low light conditions.
  • If you partially shade a module its power will reduce less than a crystalline panel would.

The disadvantages of thin film solar panels:

  • Half the efficiency of crystalline solar panels (so they take up twice the space on your roof).
  • Can take 6 months to a year on your roof before the output stabilizes
  • Takes longer to install and uses more racking.
  • You are limited in your inverter choices.
  • They use a more toxic manufacturing process.
  • Their long term performance is not fully known, because it is such a new technology.

Here’s an example of a house I spotted with both a Thin film array (LHS) and a monocrystalline array (RHS). Despite the thin film solar panels taking up 3 times the space, they only produce 23% more power than the tiny monocrystalline array on the right:

A roof with thin film and mono solar panels on it

How thin film solar panels are made

Thin film manufacturers manufacture entire solar panels, instead of individual solar cells that are later assembled into panels. Skipping the assembly step makes for a more efficient process.

To make an amorphous silicon thin film solar panel, silicon is deposited directly onto a backsheet that may be metal, foil, plastic or glass by a technique called chemical vapour deposition. This creates an incredibly thin film of photo-reactive material which solidifies and is then etched with a laser. The laser separates the film into discrete cells and also makes electrical connections between those cells.

If you are considering buying thin film solar panels then you must read this.

Thin film solar panels take 6 months to 1 year to “bed in”. This means that when they first go on your roof, their power output will look really impressive. Typically 20-25% higher than their long-term power output. Make sure that the salesman is quoting your system power output based on the stabilized power output, not the initial power output.

Thin Film Solar Panel Manufacturers

For a current list of thin film solar panel manufacturers available in Australia – along with independent performance scores, just click through to my solar panel comparison chart, select only “Thin Film” and press the GO button:

search options on solar panel compare tool

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