Are Thin-Film Solar Cells the Next Generation of Renewables?
Renewable-energy professionals make advances in new technologies daily, striving to meet the steadily increasing demand for renewables worldwide. When it comes to solar, one of the most exciting and promising innovations may be thin-film solar cells.
Learn more about thin-film solar cells and how they shape up as an alternative to current materials.
Traditionally, companies construct most solar panels with silicon photovoltaic cells. This material makes up around 95% of solar panels shipped and installed in the past few decades. The wide use of silicon PV cells is due to how quickly they can convert light into electricity as a semiconductor. Further, silicon solar cells are long-lasting and affordable.
Still, silicon cells are not the only available option for consumers. In recent years, thin-film solar cells have emerged as a potentially worthy alternative. These cells feature light-absorbing layers that are hundreds of times smaller than silicon cells. The design of thin-film solar cells makes them the most lightweight yet durable cell option for solar panels on the market.
Like many solar panel concepts — including fiber-optic solar panels that require the use of fiber-optic cables — thin-film solar cells are not yet as widely used as more popular options. However, it is worth learning more about them because of the benefits they can potentially provide.
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Manufacturers can make these kinds of solar cells from one of four materials — copper indium gallium selenide, amorphous silicon, gallium arsenide or cadmium telluride. A-Si and CdTe are the most well-known of these technologies and are viable for general thin-film solar applications.
Amorphous silicon is the most similar thin-film technology to silicon and is more durable than some of its counterparts. These cells are also easier to manufacture than silicon cells and are more durable. However, a-Si cells are less efficient, making them difficult to scale.
Cadmium telluride is the most common type of thin-film solar cell. The main benefit of CdTe is companies can produce straightforwardly and affordably. However, CdTe contains cadmium, which is toxic in certain amounts.
The other two technologies — CIGS and GaAs — are expensive and difficult to scale.
When compared to silicon cells, thin-film cells come with a couple of advantages that have positioned them as a potential popular option for future solar panel installations:
- Eco-friendliness: Because of the structure of thin-film cells, they are much less carbon-intensive than silicon cells. This way, thin-film cells are more sustainable than their more commonly used counterparts. That said, manufacturers must remember some types of thin-film cells contain toxins.
- Labour Costs: A series of panels using thin-film solar cells are easier to install, making them more affordable. The thin, flexible structure of thin-film panels makes them simple for many experienced contractors.
At the same time, it is essential to understand the reasons why thin-film solar cells have had trouble experiencing the same level of popularity as silicon cells:
- Efficiency: When you compare the two in terms of efficiency, silicon solar panels come out on top. They offer around 14-16% efficiency, sometimes increasing to 20%. Thin film’s newest recorded record for efficiency is just under 10%. As a result, it makes more sense from an investment standpoint to choose silicon solar panels.
- Space: To maximise efficiency, it is necessary to install several thin-cell solar panels. Therefore, their installation requires more space, meaning only consumers with larger homes or businesses can use them.
Comparing the advantages and downfalls of thin-film solar panels can give you further insight into why they are not as widespread as traditional silicon solar panels yet.
Ultimately, thin-film solar panels hold significant promise as part of the next generation of renewables — they are easy to install, sustainable and affordable.
However, thin-film solar panels will remain second to other alternatives unless experts can maximise their efficiency, limit their toxicity and minimise how much space they require for installation.
Still, thin-film solar cells are worth keeping an eye on as they continue to develop in the coming years.
Jane works as an environmental and energy writer. She is also the founder and editor-in-chief of