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Thin-film solar panels: what you need to know

Learn the types, prices, pros and cons of thin-film solar panels

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flexible solar panels on a roof

Often no thicker than a piece of paper, thin-film solar panels are among the least visible advancements in renewable energy technology today.

We’ve outlined everything you need to know about thin-film solar panels below to help you learn about the technology involved and whether they’re right for you.

Key insights

  • Thin-film solar panels are growing in efficiency and popularity.
  • There are multiple types of thin-film solar panels, and each has its own pros and cons.
  • Overall, though, most people find that thin-film solar panels are not yet financially worth it compared with traditional rigid panels.

What are thin-film solar panels?

The term “thin-film solar panels” is somewhat self-explanatory, referring to solar-electricity-generating products that are thin, lightweight and low-profile. Your first interaction with thin-film solar cells may have been on a pocket calculator or a solar-powered lawn light, but the technology is now used in everything from household devices to commercial building materials.

Today, two of the most common examples of thin-film solar technology include flexible solar panels (also known as amorphous solar panels) and solar shingles (also known as solar roof tiles). Because thin-film panels are lightweight and can contour to a variety of surfaces, products using this technology present unique solutions for powering buildings, vehicles and other interesting applications.

A lot of people ask about thin-film solar panels, even if they don’t really know what they are called.
Perry Meek, project developer with Cal Solar

According to Solar Magazine, thin-film solar panels made up only 10% of the photovoltaic (PV) market in 2022. However, the technology's paper-thin appearance has caught the attention of many people going solar. As Perry Meek, a project developer with Cal Solar, explained to us, “A lot of people ask about thin-film solar panels, even if they don’t really know what they are called.”

» MORE: Types of solar panels

Pros and cons of thin-film solar panels

When compared with traditional, rigid solar panels, thin-film solar panels present several advantages and disadvantages.

General thin-film solar panel pros

Thin-film solar panels’ subtle and sometimes incognito appearance often makes them more aesthetically pleasing than bulky rooftop panels.

As Robin, a ConsumerAffairs reviewer from New Jersey, told us, “I finally went with the Tesla Solar Roof (tiles not panels) and I couldn't be happier. I needed a new roof anyway so decided to get it with 2 PowerWall backup batteries. The product looks amazing and IMO is the best-looking solar product on the market right now.”

While solar shingles and roof tiles are perhaps the most popular thin-film solar product on the market, these building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) are really just the tip of the iceberg for the technology. Thin-film solar panels are often flexible and sometimes transparent, making them one of the most versatile forms of renewable energy generation in research and development today.

General thin-film solar panel cons

The bad news is that thin-film solar panels aren’t perfect. Most thin-film products have shorter life spans and lower efficiency levels than comparable conventional solar panels. Because of this, you’ll generally need a larger amount of space to install thin-film panels, whereas more efficient panels could take advantage of a smaller area.


  • Sleek, subtle, paper-thin appearance
  • Can double as roofing tiles and solar panels
  • Often flexible and easy to install on a variety of surfaces
  • May be cheaper than traditional panels


  • Shorter life spans than traditional solar panels
  • Less efficient than traditional solar panels
  • More prone to scratches, dents and damage
  • Require more installation space

What are the different types of thin-film solar panels?

Because the technology for thin-film solar panels has been around for decades, there are multiple different types of thin-film solar panels in use today, and each has its own pros and cons.

  • Amorphous silicon (a-Si): This type of solar panel has a wide range of applications and lower material costs than traditional solar panels, making it a cost-effective choice. However, it has a lower power production efficiency and requires a large installation space. Additionally, the lifespan of these panels is shorter than most other types of solar panels.
  • Cadmium telluride (CdTe): These panels are easy to manufacture and there is a lot of ongoing research to improve their efficiency, making them a promising option for the future. However, as of now, they have low efficiency levels. Another downside is that they contain toxic and hard-to-source materials.
  • Copper indium gallium (di)selenide (CIGS): These panels have the highest efficiency levels of thin-film panels in various conditions and are flexible, making them suitable for many different applications. However, their research and availability are limited but progressing. They are also more expensive to produce than other thin-film and rigid panels.
  • Organic photovoltaic (OPV): These panels are cheap and easy to produce and install. They are environmentally friendly, thin and lightweight. However, they have very low-efficiency levels and short expected life spans.

Within each type of thin-film solar panel, there are also a variety of unique innovations manufacturers use to create new and better-performing products. For instance, several companies are developing thin-film bifacial solar panels, which are able to harness sunlight on both the top and bottom surfaces of the panels for a greater overall electricity yield.

What do thin-film solar panels cost?

In general, you can expect to pay somewhere between $3,000 and $9,000 for a residential thin-film solar panel installation on an average-size home. However, it’s worth remembering that there is a lot of variation between different manufacturers and products, and some installations will need more equipment than others. Also, in addition to the costs of the panels themselves, you may have to pay extra for labor, permitting and other components of your solar energy system, like an inverter.

» MORE: How much do solar panels cost?

You can expect current thin-film solar panels to last between 10 and 20 years, while rigid solar panels last 25 to 30 years.

It’s difficult to put that price range in context because, compared with traditional solar panels, thin-film solar panels may be cheaper or more expensive, depending on the technology involved. For example, while a sheet of amorphous silicon (a-Si) or Cadmium Telluride (CdTe) thin-film solar panels is usually priced lower than rigid alternatives, Copper Indium Gallium Diselenide (CIGS) thin-film panels tend to be more expensive.

The life span of your equipment plays a big part in your ultimate return on investment. So, even if thin-film solar panels are less expensive than rigid solar panels initially, they may be less cost-effective over the long term if they don’t last as long.

Thin-film solar panel price per watt

Considering all the different technologies and price points available, thin-film solar panels typically cost 50 cents to $1.50 per watt, not including installation or other associated costs. To put this in perspective, buying enough solar panels to assemble an average-size 6-kilowatt thin-film solar panel system would cost between $3,000 and $9,000.

Although the price per watt is an important metric to consider when evaluating your solar options, we’ll reiterate that it’s important to keep in mind all of your project's expenses when comparing options. In most cases, though, thin-film solar panels require significantly less equipment to install than rigid solar panels, which can make them cheaper overall, especially if you do it yourself.

Are thin-film solar panels worth it?

Although the technology has come a long way, many people still find that traditional solar panels remain the most cost-effective solution for on-site renewable energy generation. With that said, if the aesthetics of your installation are more important to you, thin-film solar panels may be the better option.

To determine whether or not thin-film solar panels are right for you, consider their pros and cons and contact some solar energy companies in your area. Get quotes from multiple providers, including estimates for projects that use rigid solar panels, so that you can compare all of your options and make a smart purchase.

Find a Solar Energy partner near you.


    How efficient are thin-film solar panels?

    The efficiency of thin-film solar panels is generally somewhere between 7% and 18%. That means some thin-film solar panels are beginning to reach efficiency levels similar to traditional rigid solar panels, which tend to hover around 20% as of publishing.

    » MORE: Most efficient solar panels

    How are thin-film solar panels made?

    Thin-film solar panels are made with a variety of manufacturing methods and materials. Like traditional solar panels, most thin-film solar panels consist of multiple stacked layers of glass, plastic or metal that protect the panel’s conductive materials.

    » MORE: How are solar panels made?

    How do thin-film solar panels react to high temperatures?

    Compared with traditional solar panels, thin-film modules are generally rated for higher resistance to heat. However, high temperatures can still cause thin-film solar panels to lose efficiency.

    How long do thin-film solar panels last?

    Most thin-film solar panels can be expected to last between 10 and 20 years before their production falls off significantly, but the exact life span of your thin-film solar panels will depend on the specific product you choose and its operating conditions.

    For reference, today’s most advanced rigid solar panels are rated for 20 to 30 years of operation.

    » LEARN: How long do solar panels last?

    ConsumerAffairs writers primarily rely on government data, industry experts and original research from other reputable publications to inform their work. Specific sources for this article include:
    1. Solar Magazine, “Thin-Film Solar Panels: An In-Depth Guide | Types, Pros & Cons.” Accessed June 14, 2023.
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