Science Energy Flexible Solar Panels: What You Should Know Before Buying Discover the benefits flexible solar panels have over standard panels. By David M. Kuchta David M. Kuchta Writer Wesleyan University, University of California, Berkeley David Kuchta, Ph.D. has 10 years of experience in gardening and has read widely in environmental history and the energy transition. An environmental activist since the 1970s, he is also a historian, author, gardener, and educator. Learn about our editorial process Published November 16, 2021 alejomiranda / Getty Images Share Twitter Pinterest Email Energy Renewable Energy Fossil Fuels In This Article Expand How Flexible Panels Work Uses For Flexible Panels Limitations of Flexible Solar Weighing the Costs and Benefits Flexible solar panels are quite different from the rigid, rectangular, glass-encased standard solar panels typically found on rooftops. Rather, flexible solar panels come in all shapes and sizes, and are expected to be used in a greater number of situations than standard panels— think of just about anywhere where converting sunlight to electricity is financially worth it. Even if most solar installers will only install standard solar panels on a rooftop, flexible ones are easier to install, available online and at some big-box home improvement centers, and come in a variety of forms, costs, and wattages. How Flexible Panels Work Whereas portable solar panels contain solar cells mounted in a lightweight, often plastic frame and thin-film panels are made of materials like copper, selenium, and gallium, flexible and standard solar panels both use solar wafers to convert sunlight to electricity. Most often, flexible panels use wafers made from silicon, though they are far thinner than those in standard panels—as thin as merely a few micrometers in width. Whereas standard panels are sandwiched between layers of glass, flexible panels are placed between layers of protective plastic. Making wafers out of other materials such as graphene allows solar cells to be mounted on even more surfaces, from glass to adhesive tape. Uses For Flexible Panels Nature abhors right angles, so flexible panels conform better to the curves of the natural environment than standard solar panels. Flexible solar panels can be mounted on awnings, tents, or curved roofs of buildings and vehicles. Boating Solar-powered boats vary from leisure craft and day boats to barges and houseboats. Flexible panels can fit the irregular shapes of many crafts, whether the shade canopy above a deck or the roof of a wheelhouse. Be sure to purchase well-sealed panels suitable for marine settings. Look for aningress 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 refueling stops. RVs and Campers welcomia / Getty Images Adding flexible solar panels to the roof of your RV won't turn your RV into a solar-powered EV, but they can allow you to run your lights and appliances from solar-generated electricity. Flexible panels add little weight to your vehicle and are easily installed. You can go boondocking on public land (meaning: for free, off-grid) rather than having to find a spot in a crowded RV park or a campground with an available hook-up. A number of RVs, motor homes, and trailers come either solar-equipped or solar-ready. Your system will work best if you have ample power output from your solar panels and a battery to store that electricity for use at night and on overcast days. A battery is certainly quieter than a generator, but don't expect it to be able to power an air conditioner all night. Camping and Hiking If you're hiking into the backcountry and are worried about your phone's battery running out of charge, you can slap a flexible panel onto the exposed side of your backpack and charge your phone while you hike. If you are car camping, place the panels on your sunroof to charge a portable battery to keep your lanterns running after dark. When camping in winter, a flexible panel is better able to absorb the refracted light from snow as well as direct sunlight. Alternative Rooftop Solar Being lightweight, flexible panels are suitable for roofs that can't support the weight of standard solar panels. Installation of flexible panels is far easier than standard solar panels, as the latter require mounting brackets, and sealing materials to prevent roof leakage. And without the need for mounting brackets and other hardware, flexible panels are more easily moved, if, for example, you decide to sell your house and want to take your solar panels with you. Flexible panels can also extend a rooftop solar array by filling in spaces too small or too misshapen to accommodate standard solar panels—or add to a system when your electricity needs grow. Limitations of Flexible Solar Perhaps someday, flexible solar panels may generate more power in small spaces. We may eventually be sticking transparent flexible panels to our windows and exterior walls to generate electricity without anything on our roofs. But as the technology stands today, flexible solar panels still have their limits. Power Output With use cases that don't require as much wattage, flexible panels often need to have as much power output as standard ones, rarely above 150 watts compared to a 250- to 300-watt standard panel. 150-watt panels are not suited to replace a rooftop solar system that can power an entire house, but 150 watts is certainly sufficient to charge a portable battery in an RV or boat. Efficiency Flexible panels tend to be of lower efficiency than standard solar panels in full sunlight. They are able to convert 15% to 20% of the sun's energy compared to the 20% to 22% efficiency of standard panels. Yet flexible panels are often designed for low-light situations, whereas standard panels primarily rely on direct, unobstructed sunlight. Higher-end flexible panels can be just as efficient as standard solar panels, however, since their solar cells have different layers that absorb a wider array of colors on the light spectrum and perform well in lower light levels. Monocrystalline cells and the curvature of the panels themselves allow them to absorb more available light. Some flexible panels are also bifacial, meaning they are semi-transparent, allowing light to pass through to the back of the panel, where additional solar cells capture more of the sun's energy. When attached directly to a metal surface like a vehicle roof, the panels will absorb heat from the roof, reducing their efficiency. The extra covering on the roof will also increase the temperature inside the vehicle. The panels will be more efficient if there is airflow underneath them. Longevity and Durability Standard solar panels are built to last, which is why installers often guarantee them for 20 to 25 years. Flexible panels are less durable, with warranties of 1 to 5 years. Flexible panels made of ethylene tetrafluoroethylene are more durable than those made of polyethylene terephthalate. Coated with plastic rather than glass, flexible panels are subject to becoming brittle and discolored, which reduces their efficiency and longevity. Water is more likely to make its way into a plastic-coated panel than a sealed glass panel, especially in lower-cost, lower-quality products. Water can cause the electrical circuits to fail. In marine settings, this can be an important consideration. Weighing the Costs and Benefits Flexibility comes with trade-offs in power, efficiency, and longevity. Before investing in something you may not use, assess your needs and do the math to make sure your investment is worth it.