Thin Film PV Solar Panels
Thin film solar panels are typically slightly cheaper and better looking than similar crystalline systems.
However, they also tend to be less efficient and have a shorter lifespan than traditional solar panels.
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What Is Thin Film PV?
If you are interested in installing solar panels on your roof you may have come across terms like Thin Film, Monocrystalline and Polycrystalline. There are very technical explanations for these terms and how they apply to solar panels. However, all that is really needed to understand these terms in relation to buying solar panels is that they relate to the material in the solar panel that takes in the sunlight.
Thin film relates to the semiconductor material in the solar panels. The semiconductor is the material that picks up the sun’s light and conducts it to the next stage in the process. Traditional solar panels use a layer of Monocrystalline silicon or Polycrystalline silicon. Thin film panels tend to use a thinner layer of a different material, most commonly Amorphous silicon.
Advantages of Thin Film
+ Thin film is cheaper and easier to produce than traditional crystalline solar panels
+ This reduction in manufacturer costs means that they are also cheaper to buy and install
+ Thin film panels can work efficiently in low light or cloudy conditions
+ They also work better than crystalline panels in very hot conditions
+ Thin film manufacturers can make light, flexible panels which are self-adhesive and can be fitted onto a variety of surfaces including windows
+ The thinner, more uniform appearance of thin film panels can make them more aesthetically pleasing
Disadvantages of Thin Film
- Thin film solar panels generally have a lower output than traditional crystalline panels
- Thin film technology is newer and therefore it hasn’t yet reached its optimal efficiency. The quality of thin film panels are getting better but at the moment you can expect a thin film panel to be four times less efficient than crystalline panels of the same size
- This lower efficiency means that you could need up to four times more space for thin film panels to achieve the same output as crystalline panels, this could lead to higher installation costs
- Thin film panels currently degrade quicker than their crystalline counterparts so they will likely come with a shorter warranty
Thin Film Vs Monocrystalline and Polycrystalline
There are some advantages to choosing thin film solar panels over traditional crystalline panels. Thin film panels are up to 20% cheaper than similar crystalline systems. As solar panels still have quite high initial costs this saving could translate into £1000s. Thin film solar panels work efficiently in cloudy conditions. Thin film panels can also withstand much higher temperatures than traditional panels, although this does not have very much impact on most UK households.
Thin film panels are arguably more aesthetically pleasing than crystalline panels due to their very sleek and thin look. This is especially apparent in comparison to polycrystalline panels, whose mottled blue colour has been known to put people off.
Traditional crystalline panels hold many advantages over thin film which is why they still comprise 80-90% of the market. It used to be the case that monocrystalline panels were held in much higher regard than polycrystalline ones. However, so much research has gone into crystalline solar power technology that there is not a lot of difference left in the price or efficiency of similar sized mono/polycrystalline systems.
Crystalline panels are currently up to four times more efficient than thin film panels in typical conditions. This means that they are also more space-efficient than thin film panels and require up to four times less roof space for the same output. Crystalline solar panels currently have longer lifespans and therefore come with a longer warranty, typically 25 years. Most big brand solar panel installers still use crystalline technology which means you are more likely to find an established, trustworthy installer if you choose crystalline panels.
Due to their low manufacturing costs a lot of research is currently going into thin film technology. As efficiency rises and costs stay low thin film may well see a rise in the market share over the coming years, especially if big name brands start using thin film panels. Ultimately, which panels will suit your needs more is down to your individual circumstances. It is always best to ask your installer which system they believe will be most beneficial to you.
How Much Does It Cost?
As solar panel costs are reliant on a lot of factors, including a home assessment, it is hard to put a solid price on them. You can find an example of typical crystalline panel costs here. As for thin film, it can be up to 20% cheaper than installing a similar crystalline system. This could be a significant amount of money saved. However, be sure to weigh up all of the pros and cons mentioned above before making a decision. Solar panels tend to be an investment so try to consider which system will more beneficial in the long term.
Best Thin Film Manufacturers
Thin film only holds around 10-20% share of the overall solar panel market. In the UK thin film holds even less of the market, with under 5% of all solar panels being thin film. There are big name manufacturers of thin film such as First Solar and Solar Frontier, who operate in the UK. However, these companies are not based in the UK and most of their operations are in countries where thin film is more popular, such as the USA and Japan.
There are some companies, such as Saint-Gobain, who offer innovative thin-film technology from right here in the UK. However, they do recommend that their thin film panels be used on larger residential houses and non-residential buildings.
Is It the Best Option for You?
Thin film is still a relatively new technology in the solar panel world. As such there is still a lot of research to be done in order to maximize thin film efficiency. Luckily, due to its low manufacturing costs, there are a lot of companies willing to put in the effort to make thin film a more desirable product in the near future.
At the moment is is arguable that there are more guarantees with crystalline solar panels; they are more efficient and long lasting. If you live in a fairly low light area with a large roof space then thin film could be a cost efficient option for you to consider. However, at present thin film is not the best option if you have a small roof space or are looking for the maximum output from your panels.
Thin film and crystalline solar panels both have advantages and disadvantages. Which ones are the best option for you will depend on your individual situation and a variety of factors including space and finance. Always ask your installer which panels they believe would be best for your particular house and circumstances.