What Are Amorphous Solar Panels, and Should You Buy Them?
Amorphous. It’s one of my favorite words in the solar dictionary; meaning without a clearly defined shape or form. When we think of solar energy, we tend to think of traditional photovoltaic panels, which make up the vast majority of solar technology in use today. Though solar panels are the most common form we see, manufacturers are constantly developing alternatives in efforts to lower the cost of solar and to expand its potential uses for situations when traditional panels may not be ideal. In the solar community, some of these alternatives are referred to as “emerging PV.”
One such alternative to traditional panels that has gained traction is the amorphous solar panel, the most well-developed thin-film solar cell. Amorphous solar panels are thin, flexible solar panels that have the shape and feel of a strip of rubber. The technology has a breadth of potential uses, as well as a lower price tag to manufacture. At this point, however, they’re not quite ready for the common rooftop solar panel installation. We’ll get to why in a moment.
So if you’re searching for the best solar panels, what should you know about amorphous solar panels? Let’s dive in.
What Are Amorphous Solar Panels?
Amorphous solar panels use the same silicon-based photovoltaic technology that exists in the common solar panel, but without the solar cell. Instead of the layered crystalline silicon wafers that appear in a solar cell, amorphous solar panels are made from a layer of non-crystalline silicon that is overlaid upon a thin substrate like glass, plastic or metal. The resulting conductive material is extremely versatile; malleable, lightweight and easily cut into unique shapes fit for many applications.
Though you can find some flexible thin-film solar panels available commercially for installations, amorphous solar panels won’t be as easy to find for a while. But when they are, what could people use amorphous solar panels for?
Applications of Amorphous Solar Panels
Well, their flexibility makes them appealing for a wide range of applications beyond rooftop solar. It’s hard for most of us to think of the potential uses of PV technology when we don’t see it in action just yet. Some of the most common applications of amorphous solar panels will (or already) include powering things like:
- Outdoor lights
- Small gadgets like portable speakers, solar phone chargers and e-readers
- Watches and clothing accessories (one of my favorite uses of solar is this hat with a fan built-in)
- Off-grid buildings or structures with low energy needs
- Windows with transparency gradients
Comparing Amorphous Solar Panels to Conventional Solar Panels
Solar panels come in all shapes and sizes, but the main types of solar panels are monocrystalline, polycrystalline and thin-film (as we mentioned, amorphous solar panels are the most well-developed type of thin-film PV technology).
Monocrystalline solar panels are what you’ll typically find from the best residential solar installers, as they yield the highest efficiency. Remember: For residential purposes, efficiency is the name of the game. The average home only has so much space on its roof, and you’ll need to maximize every square foot to offset your home’s total energy consumption. That being said, let’s compare amorphous solar panels to more traditional panels.
|Type of Solar Panel||Pros||Cons|
|Monocrystalline||+ Highest efficiency, which means more kilowatt-hours per square foot covered|
+ Longer lifespan (25+ years)
|– Most expensive type of solar panel|
|Polycrystalline||+ Balanced cost and efficiency: intermediate between monocrystalline and thin-film solar panels (best suited for installations where space is not a constraint)|
+ Long lifespan (25+ years)
|– Lower efficiency than mono panels|
– Higher temperatures affect productivity and durability
|Amorphous||+ High temperatures only have a small impact on their productivity|
+ Low cost
+ Flexible and adhesive panels available
|– Low efficiency, which means unfit for the average home|
– Shorter lifespan than mono and poly panels
Advantages of Amorphous Solar Panels
Since amorphous solar panels are so flexible, they’re ideal for unique installations. Solar panels typically weigh around 40 pounds and are, of course, unable to bend, so many solar contractors find it difficult (or dangerous) to install panels on steep, slanted or oddly shaped surfaces.
For example, here are a couple of roofs where I’d imagine traditional solar panels would be a no-go.
Amorphous solar panels could theoretically provide a cost-effective, relatively easy-to-install solar solution for these buildings. Plus, their low-profile nature makes for a more sleek look that some customers prefer. However, as we’ll cover next, the low efficiency of amorphous technology means that they would be unlikely to be able to power these buildings as a sole energy source.
Disadvantages of Amorphous Solar Panels
The most notable disadvantage to amorphous solar panels is that they lack the efficiency to be effective for the average home. The average solar panel intended for residential use lands somewhere between 15% and 20% efficient. The most efficient solar panels will top even 20%, while amorphous solar panels are around 6-7% efficient. In other words, your amorphous solar panels only produce electricity at around a third of the rate of a standard panel. Even with further investment, experts believe the theoretical efficiency limit of amorphous solar is 15%, still below the average solar panel.
The Future of Amorphous Solar Panels
Because of the low ceiling for amorphous solar panel efficiency, the technology is not attracting massive investment. However, the existing products still hold potential as supplemental sources of energy for buildings, as well as small-scale functions like powering watches, calculators, clothing and more.
If you’re looking into solar for a residential installation, we suggest reading more about the best solar panels for homes. If you’re looking into DIY solar or small-scale solar, amorphous solar may be a viable option for you. However, amorphous solar panels are still limited in their availability and may be difficult to find. If you’d like to learn where you might find thin-film or amorphous solar panels, contact a solar installation company near you.
Karsten Neumeister is a writer and solar energy specialist with a background in writing and the humanities. Before joining EcoWatch, Karsten worked in the energy sector of New Orleans, focusing on renewable energy policy and technology. A lover of music and the outdoors, Karsten might be found rock climbing, canoeing or writing songs when away from the workplace.