The Promise of Thin-Film Solar

Are you ready to bring solar power into your home? Ongoing development of thin-film solar technology heralds the arrival of a long dreamed of future where everyone can generate their own power cleanly with the sun's energy.

| February/March 2010

Solar shingles

Solar panels don’t have to be conspicuous. The panels on this house are energy-efficient and fit neatly into the roof.


Every hour, the sun beams more energy to the Earth’s surface than the global population uses in a year. Meanwhile, humanity struggles with the effects of pollution, climate change, and fossil fuel dependence. Could it be that the solution to these problems is right above us? Modern photovoltaic (PV) technologies take advantage of renewable energy from the sun by converting sunlight into electricity. So why aren’t more of us using this remarkable technology to power our homes? When asked, the reason most people give is the cost of installing a PV system. But new thin-film PV products are getting better and cheaper all the time. This technology could soon change the way we think about electricity and make sunshine our “fuel” of choice.

The Rise of Thin-Film Solar

The type of solar-electric module currently dominating the industry is crystalline silicon, which is made by encapsulating wafers of highly refined silicon under rectangular sheets of glass framed with aluminum. These modules have been the primary solar energy technology for more than 50 years. Since the invention of the first modern silicon solar cell in 1954, incremental improvements have resulted in modules capable of converting 12 to 18 percent of solar radiation into electricity.

Crystalline modules still dominate in PV sales, but in the last few years most new development work has focused on thin-film PV technologies. In 2005, more than 95 percent of the PV market was served by crystalline modules. Since then, thin film’s share of the market has risen steadily and is now 25 percent. Hundreds of thin-film companies have entered various stages of product development or production.

Large-area thin-film PV modules and laminates have been commercially available since the ’90s, and the current products have conversion efficiencies of 6 to 11 percent. The higher the efficiency, the less area and support structure required to produce the desired amount of electricity, so it’s worth noting that, overall, thin-film modules still aren’t as efficient per unit area as crystalline silicon modules. However, thin-film PV has other advantages over crystalline silicon. Perhaps most importantly, thin-film solar is much less expensive to produce. Many thin-film panels are produced from amorphous silicon. These solar cells require much less high-grade silicon than it takes to produce crystalline silicon panels. Thin-film solar cells can also be made from other semiconductor materials, including copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS) and cadmium telluride (see “Four Thin-Film Solar Technologies,” below).

Going Solar in a Big Way: Utility-Scale Thin-Film Projects

A critical question in the field of renewable energy is when utility-scale photovoltaics will reach grid parity — the point at which PV power will be cost competitive with electricity from fossil fuels. In fact, utility-scale PV power is already cost-competitive with nuclear energy, but is not yet as cheap as electricity produced from other sources, such as coal.

While many PV manufacturers are successfully reducing costs, the current low-cost leader in the field of utility-scale solar power is First Solar, which is based in Tempe, Ariz. First Solar was on track to produce more than 1 gigawatt (GW) of cadmium telluride on glass modules in 2009. For perspective, 1 GW would be equal to about 250,000 large home-scale PV systems.

5/30/2016 8:54:50 PM

We offer thin film and flexible photo voltaic solutions :

11/25/2013 8:16:10 PM

Thin film is great for aesthetics on your home, but if your panels are somewhere where you can't see them anyway, it won't make sense to spend more (if they cost more) when regular solar panels will work just same.

Just be sure to get a company that offers good warranties.

Panel (the equipment), workmanship (your roof), AND a production warranty (the output of your system).


7/26/2013 4:27:54 PM

I have a good surply of Thin film panels , each panel 100 watts , 100 volts , can surply just about anywhere . my email  

6/9/2013 8:35:00 AM

Anyone know of a supplier for the thin film

P. Tinkey
2/15/2013 5:58:41 PM

Yes, please, continue to give us more solar power articles. my OLD copy of The Mother Earth News Handbook Of Homemade Power was very dated, but I was still very sad when it finally disintegrated. Final resting place? Garden mulch.

Mary Ellen McWilliams
2/15/2013 5:37:44 PM

The solar industry was surviving and growing slowly until the mid 2000's. It was still a cottage industry that was growing. No one was getting rich but they were surviving and growing. Today, with all the manipulations from the Federal Government and this administration...most of the companies are out of business. I know this because our construction company does solar (especially thin film) installations. in 2005 we were doing about 4 a year; by 2007 6 a year...not great but okay. It was fairly expensive but many were willing to look at the long term. Now Unisolar is gone. They held the patent for thin film. They made a GREAT product that had a long life. I truly believe that solar will/can work on an INDIVIDUAL basis. This administration believes that we can put a huge system in the desert etc and run cities. I think that will never work. When you can have a grid tied system there is hardly ANY new infrastructure needed. The government doesn't need to get into it. We were doing well and growing as we were building/remodeling houses and the customers (interesting fact...all but one couple profess to be Conservative politically!!!) were thrilled; the local power co-op was happy...a win/win all around. This is what happens when the free market isn't allowed to work. Now I believe the only thin film panels available are from China...the cost is less but like much that comes from there...just how well are they made? I am not happy about this for many reasons. Unisolar made a superior product, employed several hundred Americans. Now we get a crappy product and those people are unemployed. We are also lucky to get any work either in construction or solar installation. There are still a few Unisolar panels available until they run out...then we will no longer offer this service. It is sad and didn't have to happen. The tax incentive was good...all the loans/payoffs ruined the whole industry. IMHO

2/20/2010 3:17:39 PM

I wanted to answer Carl Vasilou's question on cheap solar and wind sources. Many fulltime rver's like to live in natural areas with no electricity and have used both solar panels and wind turbines for many years. Typically, such units consist of 3 0r 4 75-100w panels (about all that you can fit on an rv roof) a regulator/charger, inverter, and 4 to 6 6 volt deep cycle batteries. You could easily increase the amount of panels in a house, and the cost per wh would decrease. Costs about $2500-3000. Small wind turbines, also used on sailboats start at around $400-500 and are rated about 400 watts at typically 26mph wind rating. They are somewhat noisy, though much less so than a generator. Check out RV blogs for more detailed advice. Expect a usable output of 200-300 watt/hours for such units, obviously power management is crucial, but many rver's do it rather than run a genset.

Louie Bergsagel
2/19/2010 4:56:32 PM

About a year ago I read about someone (probably at MIT) that invented a photo cell so efficient it could even generate power from moonlight. Anybody remember that?

2/19/2010 10:17:05 AM

You have made no mention of NANOSOLAR. This company, based out of San Jose's Silicon Valley, is producing municipal sized systems based on its standard printing deposition technology. They are who everyone should be watching. This process promises to bring the cost way down.

Carl Vasiliou_2
2/10/2010 8:52:11 AM

If they took all the money our gov uses to subsidize the oil interests and put it into solar, we could all have cheap affordable solar and wind power.

Carl Vasiliou_2
2/10/2010 8:49:43 AM

I wish there was a way to get into wind and solar power for the average guy. I'm on a very limited budget. I wonder if these 200 Dollar solar panels and turbins work?

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