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Flexible solar panel guide

Flexible solar panels can bend, flex and curve, so they offer installation options where traditional solar panels don’t work — but there are drawbacks

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Written by Sally Jones
Edited by Jon Bortin

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    flexible solar panels on an oddly shaped building

    Traditional solar panels are rigid, so they can’t be installed on surfaces that aren’t flat. Flexible solar panels are able to flex around objects, like curved roof structures. Even so, they’re not the best solar panel choice for rooftop solar arrays. They do have, however, some intriguing applications. If you’re considering flexible solar panels, here’s what you need to know.


    Key insights

    • Rigid solar panels have about 16% to 20% efficiency ratings.
    • Flexible solar panels have similar efficiency but aren't as durable.
    • Flexible panels are not the same as thin-film solar panels.
    • Flexible solar panels are ideal for vehicles, such as RVs and campers.

    Are flexible solar panels a good fit for you?

    Whether flexible solar panels are right for you depends on what you want to use them for. They’re not the same as thin-film solar panels, though you may hear the terms used interchangeably.

    “Thin-film solar panels have been around for a while and have mostly been used for larger utility solar projects,” said Dan Orzech, general manager of Oregon Clean Power Co-op, who has been in the solar industry for more than a dozen years. “Flexible solar panels are relatively new and so far are not commonly used for either homes or other buildings.”

    Flexible solar panels are relatively new and so far are not commonly used for either homes or other buildings.”
    — Dan Orzech, GM, Oregon Clean Power Cooperative

    If you’re installing solar panels on the roof of your house, traditional rigid solar panels are still the best choice.Most roof structures are composed of broad, flat, rectangular surfaces, where rigid solar panels work perfectly. Rigid panels are stable and efficient and last for many years.

    What about a Victorian home, then, with multiple arched surfaces? Could you combine flexible panels in an array with rigid panels to extend the total solar coverage area? Only if you’re willing to replace them often, because they won’t last long, according to Ocean Yuan, president and CEO of Grape Solar in Eugene, Oregon.

    “On traditional solar panels, the surface is glass,” Yuan explained. “When it rains, snows or whatever, the glass, which is rigid, can sustain the impact. I have seen solar panels made 50 years ago that still work.”

    “Flexible solar panels are not made of glass,” he said. “On the surface is a transparent sheet made of very thin plastic, almost like the plastic wrap you use to wrap your food. That material under direct sun, say in Arizona or Texas, could melt. It’s an unproven material to protect the solar cells beneath it.”

    Best uses for flexible solar panels

    Even though flexible solar panels aren't the best choice for rooftop solar arrays, they do present some intriguing applications. And despite not wearing well, they are every bit as efficient as rigid solar panels.

    “They’re made of silicon-based solar cells,” said Yuan, the CEO of Grape Solar. “That’s the same efficient technology of the traditional glass-laminated solar panels. Same solar cells. Same efficiency.”

    So, what are flexible solar panels good for?

    Portable applications

    Flexible solar panels are very lightweight, so they may be most useful to hikers, climbers and backpackers, who can use them to keep devices charged. While rigid panels weigh between 30 and 50 pounds each, flexible solar panels weigh as little as 5 pounds.

    RVs and camper vans

    Many do-it-yourselfers rig up solar panels on their RVs, but these panels do require maintenance. Rigid panels have a thick profile, so on a moving vehicle they suffer wind degradation. Flexible solar panels can be taken down and stored away before driving.

    Yuan said he's seen RV applications at industry shows. “Companies like Winnebago or Airstream may use them in very small quantities, like on the curvy roof of an RV,” he said. He noted that these uses are still experimental.

    Drawbacks of flexible solar panels

    The main drawback of flexible solar panels is that the thin plastic covering that makes them more flexible isn't proven to truly protect the solar cells. As a result, flexible solar panels sometimes don’t withstand the elements as well as fixed solar panels, which can last longer than 20 years. Also, because they're relatively new to the solar marketplace, there aren't as many products available.

    How much do flexible solar panels cost?

    You can find flexible solar panels with outputs that range from 100 to 300 watts per hour. Expect to pay under $200 for a 100-watt flexible solar panel. The higher the wattage, the higher the cost. A 300-watt flexible solar panel will range in price up to $1,000. The price you pay will vary depending on the panel’s efficiency, capacity, brand and durability.

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      Where can I find flexible solar panels?

      You can purchase flexible solar panels from online or big-box stores. This may be all you need if you’re shopping for a single flexible solar panel or a small flexible solar panel kit for your RV.

      If you’re considering solar panels for your home, though, you will want traditional rigid solar panels. A rooftop solar array is an investment, so you’ll want to get several quotes from solar installation companies in your area. These companies can advise you on the best solar panels for your household’s needs, and they usually offer financing options.

      FAQ

      What is a portable solar panel?

      A portable solar panel is a smaller version of the rigid solar panels you see on rooftops, but it's self-contained with its own cables, inverter and battery. Portable panels are not fixed to the roof, so you can move them from place to place. They're more lightweight and more portable than standard panels, so they’re often used on RV rooftops.

      How much do portable solar panels cost?

      Portable solar panels range from $60 to $1,000, which is relatively inexpensive compared with standard solar panels. Their main attraction is that they can provide power wherever you need it.

      How long do portable solar panels last?

      Portable solar panels can last as long as standard solar panels: about 25 to 30 years. In certain conditions, they might be more likely than rigid panels to degrade.

      Bottom line

      Flexible solar panels are not the same as thin-film solar panels, though you may hear the terms used interchangeably. They’re a relatively new product and haven't yet been tested by time and the elements. But their flexibility presents some intriguing applications, including for portable use by hikers and backpackers and on RVs and campers.

      Whether they’re a good fit for you depends on how you plan to use them. They’re not the best option for a rooftop solar array, and they’re not as durable — but they are just as efficient as their rigid counterparts.

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