What Are Flexible Solar Panels and When to Use Them
August 4, 2022
In our previous post, we talked about folding solar suitcases. Today, flexible solar panels take the spotlight.
Solar panels, in general, have come a long way. From bulky panels, various lightweight solutions are now available on the market.
The options are better than ever, especially if you need off-grid or portable power. Flexible solar panels make a good example.
They do the same job as rigid units and generate a similar amount of energy. But do flexible solar panels work differently? How effective are they for road trips and outdoor adventures?
If you have not heard of them yet, here is your chance to know the basics of this superb invention!
What Are Flexible Solar Panels?
Flexible panels, as the name suggests, are made of pliable material, which is cheaper than glass. The common process involves depositing PV material on flexible substrates.
Thanks to their flexible nature, they can fit on curved and other complex surfaces. Their reliability and compactness also make them suitable for off-grid and portable applications.
High-efficiency flexible solar panels can usually be bent to around 30 degrees. Plus, they weigh less than six pounds and are less than an inch thick. These qualities allow them to contour to any curved surface of a boat, motorhome, van, or trailer.
It also helps that they are light on the pocket.
They come in all shapes and sizes and are expected to be useful in a wider variety of situations than standard solar panels.
How do they work? Flexible solar panels work a lot like conventional (flat) solar panels. They are based on the same photovoltaic (PV) technology. Simply put, the ability to generate solar power from direct sunlight.
Moreover, they are made to serve low-wattage power needs (50W to 300W capacity). This can be stored in a battery for later use.
For this reason, they make an especially useful power source that comes in handy when you are on the go.
Solar wafers in flexible panels
Flexible solar panels use solar wafers to convert sunlight to electricity. These wafers are light and bendable so you can carry them with you on the go.
Often, the wafers are made from silicon, though they are far thinner than those in standard panels. Graphene-made wafers also allow solar cells to be mounted on surfaces.
Major Types of Flexible Solar Panels
There are three (3) major types of flexible solar panels, and these are:
- Crystalline (silicon) flexible solar panels
- Thin-film flexible solar panels
- Flexible panels made of organic materials
1. Crystalline flexible solar panels
A flexible crystalline panel is made of the same silicone material used in regular ones. It is composed of many crystalline, photovoltaic, flexible solar cells.
The silicon material is stacked differently based on thickness. For one, in lightweight panels, the silicon wafers are sliced to a few micrometres (μm) thick.
This gives them the illusion of being flexible as they can be bent up to 30 degrees. In contrast, the wafers in standard panels are sliced at about 200μm, making them thicker and heavier.
Thin-layered flexible silicon panels are also placed between a protective layer. Usually, they are made of plastic to extend durability and portability.
Overall, this is what makes flexible solar panels thin and light.
2. Thin-film flexible solar panels
These are a budding solar technology, where a PV material is printed or pasted on a thin surface. This includes cloth, thick paper, and aluminium sheets, to name a few.
Without silicon protection, thin films are far less durable than crystalline. However, they are still developing technology; thus, there is room for improvement.
When it comes to the advantage, you can benefit from their super flexibility. They can be rolled up for storage, making them ideal for camping trips.
This also makes them immensely lightweight, with some units weighing in at less than 2kg.
3. Flexible solar panels made of organic materials
This research is presently on course at MIT. The idea is to produce robust, flexible solar panels made mostly of organic material.
The brittle nature of the electrodes were once the primary challenge. Until graphene electrodes were introduced.
With this, the solar industry expects to produce higher-quality models. Mainly focusing on enhanced flexibility and extended durability, and of course, more sustainability.
The Best Uses for Flexible Solar Panels
Flexible panels conform better to the curves of the surrounding environment than standard ones. Thus they are adaptable and can mount on awnings, tents, or curved roofs (e.g. buildings and vehicles).
Below are the best common uses for this type of solar panel:
Flexible panels can fit the irregular shapes of boats. Whether it is the shade canopy above a deck or the wheelhouse roof.
Be sure to invest in well-sealed panels suitable for marine settings. Look for an ingress protection rating of 67 or higher.
Add a battery to store the electricity generated by your panels. And you can sail without having to worry about refuelling stops.
Adding flexible solar panels to your motorhomes’s roof won’t turn it into a solar-powered RV. Rather, they will provide you with solar-generated electricity.
For instance, to run your lights and appliances. Flexible panels also add little weight and are easily installed.
Your system will work best if you have enough power output from your solar panels. Plus, a battery to store that electricity for later use.
Note: A battery is quieter than a generator, but do not expect it to power an air conditioner all night.
3. Camping and hiking
You can always rely on a flexible solar panel while camping and hiking in the bush. You can slap the panel on the exposed side of your backpack and charge your phone!
It works like a power bank, but a panel is a better choice if you are hiking and camping for a day or two. Suppose you are camping in your car; place the panels on your roof to charge a portable battery.
When camping in winter, a flexible panel can also absorb the refracted light from snow and sunlight.
4. Alternative rooftop solar
Flexible panels are suitable for roofs that cannot support the weight of standard solar units. The installation is also far easier; no mounting brackets and hardware are needed.
This makes flexible solar panels portable. If you decide to sell your house, you can take your panels with you.
Moreover, they can also extend a rooftop solar array by filling in spaces. Whether it is too small or distorted to accommodate a regular solar panel.
The Key Advantages and Disadvantages
Flexible solar panels are more than their flexibility feature. But, like any panel unit, they come with a few disadvantages. Nevertheless, their perks are remarkable and worth considering.
- Due to their lightweight nature, they can be installed on low-load-bearing roofs. Instances like this are unsuitable for standard solar panels.
- No racks, ballasts or roof penetrations. This allows for easier installation and reduces labour costs.
- One can serve as an eco-friendly energy source (battery needed).
- Bendable enough to be multi-functional, compared to conventional or flat units.
- Easy on most pockets.
- They have limited power output. Even with an efficiency of up to 25%, you only get up to 300W flexible solar panels. But 150W is enough to charge a portable battery in an motorhome or boat.
- Less durable than standard solar panels with only 1 to 5 years of warranty. But this can depend on the brand you invest in.
Get Your Folding Solar Panels Here!
Product code: KI2088-50F
Great to use in a variety of applications where standard panels are difficult to install. The Renogy Flexible Monocrystalline is thin and capable of flexing up to 248 degrees.
It only weighs 2.87 pounds, which is one-quarter the weight of the traditional 50W. Ideal for providing power on an RV, boat or teardrop trailer.
Product code: KI2088-175F
Capable of achieving up to an incredible 248-degree arc of flexibility. All thanks to its advanced solar cell technology and lamination techniques.
The unit also features an ultra-lightweight panel and weighs only 6.2 pounds. This panel weighs 70% less than its standard counterpart and is less than 5% thick.
Highly flexible and easy to install on curved surfaces, such as on motorhomes and boats.
The Bottom Line
People have different needs when it comes to solar charging. For one, some demand a unit ideal for off-grid, with no mains electricity. Others need something sufficient for their motorhomes, boats, or camping trips.
The good thing about flexible solar panels is they can provide green energy in places that are not usually available. In short, they are perfect for off-grid, motorhomes, and household use even (in case of a power outage).
© Wiltronics Research Pty Ltd 2022