The Rise Of Thin Film Solar Panels

Thin solar panels

When most people think of solar panels they think of those big glass silicon panels. They currently utterly dominate the solar installation market, and likely will for some time. The energy generation per square meter is favorable, making it suitable for small residential roofs as well as large commercial. However the equipment to mount these panels to a surface to avoid wind load issues and guarantee structural integrity for 30 years comes with a cost, as does the labor needed. Solar in general needs to be constantly pushing lower and lower prices, and while the costs mentioned aren’t necessarily fixed and are falling over time, other costs like customer acquisition and to some extent permitting are rising more quickly. However silicon photo-voltaic panels are  actually a first generation technology, and a second and third generation already exist!

Thin film panels are the second generation of solar technology. They require a fraction of the energy to produce and far less raw materials as well. These panels already hold a not inconsequential market share, around 10%, and have many advantages and comparatively little disadvantages over the market dominant PV panels. Many analysts have projected that thin films are the future of solar power, and I think that case can definitely be made, but the numbers aren’t currently supporting that trend. While installed market share isn’t miniscule, it is declining likely due to economies of scale for traditional PV that China has and continues to invest in. This results in ultra cheap panels which are comparatively as cheap as thin films can be despite the overall cost of system being higher due to extra equipment and labor. China has flooded the market so heavily, and in many different industries such as e-bikes, that Suniva and Solarworld had to file a complaint in order to install tariffs on imported Chinese Silicon panels. After this ruling was deemed valid, market leaders for thin film panels had their stock prices explode in value. This is because thin film solar panels utilize materials such as Cadmium Telluride, Amorphous Silicon, Copper Indium Gallium Selenide, or Gallium Arsenide. Thin film panels have a lot of manufacturing based in the US as well, which makes the tariff situation a perfect storm for these companies.

Even without a favorable shift towards thin films through tariffs, some companies continue to push the limits of what thin films can accomplish. One of the best use cases for solar in general is decentralized generation, as utilities don’t exist in remote, undeveloped, or poorer regions of the world. Places like india, or most notably sub-saharan africa. In these kinds of places, quick deployability and ease of installation can make an incredible difference in the lives of people without power. Solopower in Portland, OR sells what is essentially a bucket with solar equipment and a battery that can be sent out and installed in an hour or two to provide light. It’s a far cry from the amenities that we take for granted in the west but a single light can enable book reading at night for kids, or vandal/critter (especially snakes) protection and makes a huge difference in quality of life.

Thin film panels have a lot of catching up to do to realize it’s promise of market dominance. Thin films currently bask in a large price premium which companies will justify with ease of deployment, and promise ridiculously low production costs in the future. It’s possible third generation technologies, such as painted solar panels, might leapfrog them before economies of scale even attempt to make a difference. It’s also possible that 1st generation glass PV and it’s increasing economies of scale will be too hard to innovate against. Either way the future is still exciting in this industry.

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