Renewable Energy

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Thinking About Thin-Film Solar

11/17/2009 2:13:00 PM

Tags: solar, solar power, PV, thin film, electricity, renewable energy

We’re working on an article about thin-film photovoltaics (PV) for our February/March 2010 issue, and in the process I’m learning more about this very cool technology.

What is Thin-Film PV? Thin-film is a lightweight and flexible type of PV. Because it's so light and flexible, thin-film PV is also versatile: For example, you can mount it on the side of a tent or backpack, or integrate it directly into the roof of your home. It’s an alternative to crystalline silicon, which is still the most common type of PV. Some thin-film panels are manufactured with amorphous silicon, while others are made with cadmium telluride, or other non-silicon materials.

 

August September 2008 Cover 
October November 2006 Cover 

A Little Time Travel. We’ve written about thin-film PV several times in the last few years. In fact, we’ve even put thin-film PV on the cover twice (see left). So, just for fun, here’s a quick trip back into the Mother Earth News archive for more information on this technology.

2008. For an idea of what a house with thin-film PV looks like, check out the cover photo from our August/September 2008 issue. It's not easy to see the thin-film solar panels, and that's kind of the point. If you’re not crazy about the way solar panels look, one of the benefits of thin-film PV is that it can be very unobtrusive.

2006. Here’s a thin-film installation where it's easier to see the PV panels. This cover photo from our October/November 2006 issue shows the thin-film PV laminates that our editor in chief, Cheryl Long, installed on her barn roof.  You can read all about her PV system in the article Easy Solar Power.

2002. For more general background info on thin-film PV, check out this article from February/March 2002, Go Solar and Be Secure. It explains the benefits to homeowners of using this then-somewhat-newer technology.  

1982!  As I was looking through the archive, I was surprised to stumble across this fairly technical article on thin-film PV research from November/December 1982, Thin Film Amorphous Silicon Photovoltaics. It explains how the technology works and what was happening with it way back in the early ’80s.

But Back to the Future... Our new article will cover some of the latest updates in thin-film technology. It’s written by our contributing editor Steve Heckeroth, who has a lot to say about the promise of thin-film technology and solar-electric power in general. Stay tuned!


Megan E. Phelps is a freelance writer based in Kansas. She enjoys reading and writing about all things related to sustainable living including homesteading skills, green building and renewable energy. You can find her on .



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David Haggard_4
1/2/2010 5:30:33 PM
Please include information on where the do-it-yourself homeowner can buy thin-film "peel & stick" PV. I have been searching, and all I can find is suppliers that sell it already built in to their roof panels, or they will come and do it for you. None seem interested in selling to me to do it myself. If it truly is peel & stick, why can I not find a supplier so I can stick it on my existing steel roof? I have a brand new garage with 1200 square feet of south-facing steel roof, just begging for thin-film PV!

MPHymel_2
12/2/2009 7:20:18 PM
Bruce, Go ahead and post your questions, we can all benefit from the dialog.

Bruce R_1
11/30/2009 1:34:20 PM
Uncle Red... is there some way to contact you directly? Don't want to bother all the good people here with my questions. Thanks!

Uncle Red
11/30/2009 10:34:51 AM
At 6W/sqft, thin film does have certain design limitations. However, Flex-Light (Uni-Solar) triple junction thin film is Miami-Dade hurricane wind-load certified, and 10-15% more PRODUCTIVE in hot weather than crystalline modules, so perfect for the tropics. The EFFICIENCY of these amorphous modules at STC (lab conditions - 77*F) is lower than crystalline, but given the above-mentioned heat tolerance, the less angle-to-the-sun sensitive nature of thin film (STC lab testing also holds the light angle at the exact "sweet spot"), and its much higher shade tolerance and low-light sensitivity, thin films are, again, 10-15% more PRODUCTIVE in real-world hot climates. I helped design an all-electric (no gas) 2800sqft Zero-Energy home in Clearwater, FL utilizing a 5kW thin film system - on a hip roof (all roof faces are triangles) no less. It incorporated permanent Soy-based spray foam insulation, an Active Solar water heating system, and 10' and 18' long 16" wide thin film panels adhered to 16"O.C. standing seam metal roofing. The home averages 25kWh/day usage, and 25kWh/day production. One roof face has both lengths of modules, the layout looks like a stealth aircraft.

Uncle Red
11/30/2009 10:34:07 AM
At 6W/sqft, thin film does have certain design limitations. However, Flex-Light (Uni-Solar) triple junction thin film is Miami-Dade hurricane wind-load certified, and 10-15% more PRODUCTIVE in hot weather than crystalline modules, so perfect for the tropics. The EFFICIENCY of these amorphous modules at STC (lab conditions - 77*F) is lower than crystalline, but given the above-mentioned heat tolerance, the less angle-to-the-sun sensitive nature of thin film (STC lab testing also holds the light angle at the exact "sweet spot"), and its much higher shade tolerance and low-light sensitivity, thin films are, again, 10-15% more PRODUCTIVE in real-world hot climates. I helped design an all-electric (no gas) 2800sqft Zero-Energy home in Clearwater, FL utilizing a 5kW thin film system - on a hip roof (all roof faces are triangles) no less. It incorporated permanent Soy-based spray foam insulation, an Active Solar water heating system, and 10' and 18' long 16" wide thin film panels adhered to 16"O.C. standing seam metal roofing. The home averages 25kWh/day usage, and 25kWh/day production. One roof face has both lengths of modules, the layout looks like a stealth aircraft.

Bruce R_1
11/30/2009 9:06:09 AM
I will retire in the Philippines. How will thin film solar systems deal with the heat, humidity and typhoons? I see a lot of information for North America, but almost no information for the tropics.. Thanks!

B Knight
11/28/2009 5:27:06 PM
I'm sure you will find that thin film takes almost twice the space as crystalline modules. Thus thin film is suitable for large commercial rooftops that have a weight restriction. For residential customers, due to the huge space requirements, they would likely be better off with crystalline modules. If we use Ontario as an example, their Feed-in Tariff (FiT) will pay 80.2 cents per kilowatt hour for a max size of 10Kw. A residential customer, with their limited space, would be better off to install a 5 kW standard PV system, then use that space for a 2kW thin film installation. Here's a table of the Ontario FiT rates: http://www.ontariosolarfarms.com/feed-in-tariff.html

Mary_77
11/27/2009 1:54:25 PM
I'd be very interested in knowing if a homeowner can install it easily (is it a peel-and-stick kind of thing?) and also the cost. I'd love to try this!

Megan Phelps
11/27/2009 10:25:11 AM
George, thanks for your feedback! Yes, the article will definitely address those issues. Megan

George Works
11/24/2009 7:07:59 AM
I've designed and installed several photovoltaic systems using crystalline silicon panels. Without subsidies of some sort these systems barely pay off over the 25 year warranty of the panels, although they provide other benefits. They also take a lot of roof area, even with the 17% efficiency panels now available. As you put your article together, I'd be most interested in seeing discussions of the useful life of the thin film panels, and also of the efficiency compared to crystalline panels. These have always been their weak points in the past. Hopefully they are improving.







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