Flexible solar panels are designed to be a lighter, more portable style of solar panel. They come with easier-to-install options for people who want to use the sun to power things like recreational vehicles or outdoor activities. While thin-film solar panels are not the best option for powering your home, they do have other advantages for specific uses.
In this guide, we’ll look at what flexible solar panels are, how they're used, the advantages and disadvantages compared to rigid panels, and provide a buyer’s guide so you know what to consider when buying a flexible solar panel kit from one of the leading companies.
What Are Flexible Solar Panels?
Flexible solar panels are electricity-generating devices made of ultra-thin silicon cells, usually just a few micrometers wide, sandwiched between layers of protective plastic. This thin-film solar technology allows them to be much thinner and more flexible than standard monocrystalline or polycrystalline panels, which are made of silicon wafers that are up to 200 micrometers thick (a little thicker than a human hair) mounted on aluminum and covered with glass.
Reducing the width of the solar cells increases their flexibility, but it also reduces both their efficiency when generating electricity and their expected lifespan. As a result, traditional, non-flexible panels remain more popular for home use because they can create more electricity, and last for an average of 25 to 30 years. Nevertheless, flexible solar panels are growing in popularity, as the needs of the solar consumer expand to include more portable, lightweight options.
Flexible Solar Panel Innovation
Experts valued the global flexible solar panels market at $464 million in 2020, and project it to grow to $914 million by 2030. Technological innovation will be a driving force behind that growth, as flexible panels become more efficient, more reliable, and more affordable.
For example, researchers have been working on flexible solar panels that use organic solar cells with graphene electrodes. An organic solar cell uses carbon-based materials instead of silicon as the semiconductor, and the graphene material allows for more flexibility without the risk of damage to the panel.
How Are Flexible Solar Panels Used?
Flexible solar panels are useful for applications like RVs and campers, boating, and outdoor activities like camping or hiking where occasional power is needed. They’re typically used as an alternative to a conventional solar panel when the mounting locations are more complex, such as the curved roof of a vehicle, or when space is the main concern.
You can use flexible solar panels to charge various electronic devices, such as mobile phones and digital cameras, and people often use these options when working in remote locations to power their camping equipment, GPS, and communication systems.
Flexible Solar Panels For An RV or Boat
If you’ve ever considered powering your recreational vehicle with solar power, you are probably concerned about the idea of lugging around heavy solar panels or having rigid panels that fight the wind. Luckily, flexible solar panels are an excellent option if you’re looking to enjoy solar energy with increased convenience.
- Flexible solar panels are great for RVs, boats, and outdoor activities due to their smaller size, lower weight, and flexibility.
- Many mobile solar projects do not require large amounts of energy, so smaller panels can meet those needs.
- Compared to your home, RV roofs are very small and often have many things mounted to them, so you can only fit relatively small panels in the available space.
- You can mount a flexible solar panel directly on the roof of your RV, which means it won’t be damaged by high winds while driving.
What Are The Advantages Of Flexible Solar Panels?
Mounting - The biggest advantage of flexible solar panels is that there are more mounting options compared to a traditional solar panel. Their flexible design can easily fit on the roof of an RV without any additional equipment, and they can often be mounted with industrial silicone adhesive instead of screws. Their lightweight designs also ensure they don't damage the delicate roof of your recreational vehicle.
Portability - The smaller size and lower weight of flexible solar panels make them convenient and easy to use in a variety of environments. Unlike full-sized solar panels, you can carry flexible solar panels on the go, and store them with ease. Many manufacturers even sell their products with a carrying case to make transportation easier.
What Are The Disadvantages of Flexible Solar Panels?
Efficiency - The main disadvantage of flexible solar panels is that they are much less effective at generating electricity from solar energy than traditional panels. The reason for the decreased efficiency is that the thin designs provide less conducting material compared to regular monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels. As a result, most flexible solar panels are designed for low-wattage power needs of 50 to 300 watts. Lower efficiency means the technology isn't reliable for home applications, especially if you want to power larger household items.
Reliability - Because the materials used to create flexible solar panels are less durable than rigid designs, their flexible nature makes them more susceptible to damage and breakage over time. As a result, many flexible solar panels have a solar warranty of up to 5 years, compared to 25 years for a rigid panel.
When talking about flexible solar panels for RV use specifically, other disadvantages include cupping, pooling, scratching, gouging, and lack of adjustability, as outlined by Gone With The Wynns.
Who Makes The Best Flexible Solar Panels?
These are a few of the top companies to consider if you’re looking for the best flexible solar panels:
Renogy - Considered to be one of the leaders in flexible solar panels for recreational use, Renogy can provide all the components necessary for users to build off-grid solar power systems at affordable prices, including flexible panels with bending angles up to 248 degrees.
SunPower - Featuring their Maxeon solar cells, SunPower claims their flexible solar panels deliver the most power and highest charging capacity in their product class. Their top-grade, lightweight polymer material allows for easy transport, installation, and flexibility up to 30 degrees.
Go Power! - From their beginnings as a small Canadian distributor of solar energy products, Go Power! has grown to become one of North America’s leading suppliers of recreational solar solutions.
Top Solar - Based in Shenzhen, China, Top Solar has more than 10 years of experience producing solar panels in all shapes and sizes, including a wide range of flexible options.
What To Consider When Buying A Flexible Solar Panel Kit
If you want to invest in a flexible solar panel kit, there are seven factors you should consider to help make the best possible decision for your needs:
1. Power Output
Power output refers to the wattage that a solar panel can produce. This critical factor determines the number of devices you can power at a given time.
- If you want to power the battery of an average family-sized boat, a solar panel with a power output of at least 100 Watts will give you up to three hours of reliable energy.
- Camping applications may require a higher output, depending on what you want to power when you’re in the woods.
Typically, the greater the power output, the higher the price of the panel.
Solar panel efficiency refers to the amount of sunlight a panel can absorb and convert into usable electricity. For example, a solar panel with a 20% efficiency rating can convert 20% of the total sunlight it receives into usable energy.
Flexible solar panels are usually around 10% to 15% efficient, compared with 15% to 20% for rigid panels, and up to 22% for highly efficient options. Again, the more efficient the panel, the more expensive it usually is.
Pay attention to a panel’s expected lifespan if you want your investment to pay off for years. Longevity typically depends on the type and quality of materials used to create the solar panel. In general, panels made of plastic are going to degrade faster than those made with glass and aluminum, due to the nature of that material.
For instance, a solar panel that features thin cells mounted on a metallic surface will typically last longer than one mounted on plastic. However, plastics can offer some longevity benefits that metal can't, especially in wet environments where plastic can protect against rusting and corrosion. If you opt for plastic, flexible panels made of ethylene tetrafluoroethylene (ETFE) are typically more durable than those made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
4. Bending Angle
The reason people love flexible solar panels is that they can be fitted to curved surfaces. However, the amount that they can flex without breaking, called the bending angle, depends on the panel. Flexible solar panels can typically bend around 30 degrees, but some extra-flexible panels can bend up to 248 degrees if you have specific needs that require a more extreme bending angle.
5. Size and Weight
Size and weight might seem like aesthetic preferences, but they're important factors when shopping for flexible solar panels because portability is the main concern. While a panel that weighs four to eight pounds might be acceptable when comparing flexible solar panels for RV use, it’s a lot of weight to carry around if you want to take the panel hiking.
6. Ease of Installation
Installing flexible solar panels can be relatively inexpensive, especially when compared to traditional rigid panels. Watch out for solar panel kits that advertise a simple DIY process. You need clear guidelines and instructions, no matter how portable the panels claim to be.
Your solar power kit should include a standard user guide that is easy to read. If you're buying from a multinational company, it will help if the user guide comes in your preferred language. In addition to the guide, the kit should include all the materials that facilitate an easy installation job, such as Velcro or adhesives.
A strong warranty signals a high-quality solar panel, so you want to look for an option that includes coverage of at least five years. A shorter warranty term might keep the costs down, but you’ll wish you had invested a little more if that panel stops working after just a few uses.
Flexible Solar Panels vs Rigid Solar Panels
Although flexible solar panels are an exciting new use of this renewable energy-generating technology, they are mainly designed for more specific, often temporary uses. Though perfect for an RV or hiking trip, you wouldn’t want to install them on the roof of your home to provide year-round power.
Even among fans of the technology, flexible solar panels have pros and cons that need to be considered. They are a great option for powering your RV or boat, and camping or hiking because they’re lightweight and portable. You can also use them to power gadgets at home, such as mobile phones and computers.
However, flexible solar panels offer lower generation efficiency compared to traditional panels, so they’re not the best for powering large devices. They also have a lower expected lifetime, due to the tradeoffs needed to make them flexible.
Whether or not you need flexible solar panels ultimately depends on what you want to do with them. We suggest that you research what the technology does before making a purchase, to determine whether or not flexible panels will be able to support your needs.
If you’re looking to put solar panels on your home to power your family’s energy usage, you can get started withPalmetto’s free Estimate Your Savings Tool. Together, we can help you figure out the right solution for your long-term solar power needs.