Flexible Solar Panels: Everything You Need to Know (2021)
From digital nomads to outdoor enthusiasts, flexible solar panels are a great on-the-go option for providing clean, renewable energy wherever life takes you. But with so many options to choose from, how do you know which model is the best choice for you?
In this article, we'll go over what flexible solar panels are, how they differ from rigid solar panels, and the best products currently available from top solar companies.
Flexible Solar Panels Vs. Rigid Solar Panels
A typical monocrystalline or polycrystalline solar panel is constructed of silicon wafers that are generally a bit thicker than a strand of human hair. Although it's relatively thin, the layer is rigid and easily broken, requiring most solar cells to be protected with metals and glass casings.
Flexible solar panels belong to a family of solar products called "thin film panels." Flexible panels are constructed with silicon layers over 300 times smaller than those of standard solar panels, allowing them to be flexed and still retain their functionality.
The greatest obstacle for flexible solar panels is that they're much less efficient than rigid panels. Today's average rigid solar panels are about 16-20% efficient. Thin-film flexible solar panels, however, are only 7-15% efficient, meaning you'll need more of them to produce the same amount of electricity a rigid panel would produce.
Flexible solar panels probably won't fit the bill for rooftop energy production, but they're a great option for anyone needing lightweight and portable power. Durable and lightweight, flexible solar panels are ideal for small-scale, mobile applications such as for RVs, boats and other energy needs that don't require large power outputs.
|Flexible Solar Panel Pros and Cons||Rigid Solar Panel Pros and Cons|
If you think a flexible solar panel is right for you, check out the five best flexible solar panels below.
Five Best Flexible Solar Panels
Based on criteria including durability, ease of installation, efficiency and cost of solar panels, we've determined the following products to be the best flexible solar panels on the market.
|Best Flexible Solar Panels||Our Award||Buy Now|
|Renogy Flexible Monocrystalline Solar Panel||Best Overall||Check Price|
|SunPower Flexible Solar Panel||Runner Up||Check Price|
|Renogy 100 Watt Solar Flexible Kit||Best Beginner Kit||Check Price|
|Renogy 350 Watt Solar Flexible Kit||Best Full Kit||Check Price|
|Topsolar Flexible Solar Panel||Best Panel Under $150||Check Price|
Best Overall: Renogy Flexible Monocrystalline Solar Panel
The Renogy 100W Flexible Solar Panel is capable of bending up to 248 degrees, making it perfect for marine or recreational vehicle use. Weighing just a tenth of the weight of its rigid counterparts — 4 pounds — this flexible solar panel provides best-in-class performance for a wide variety of solar applications.
- Extremely lightweight (4 pounds)
- Best flexibility
- Durable and designed to withstand extreme wind and snow loads
- Excellent low-light conversion
Why Buy: The Renogy 100W Flexible Solar Panel is unmatched in adaptability and performance. If you only need a small number of flexible solar panels or budget isn't an issue, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better unit.
Runner Up: SunPower Flexible Solar Panel
The SunPower 110 Watt Flexible Solar Panel offers great generation capabilities and modularity. Weighing in at just under 4.5 pounds and with 30 degrees of flexibility, the SunPower 110 Watt Flexible Solar Panel provides ample performance for almost any off-grid, on-the-go power need.
- Lightweight (4.4 pounds)
- 5-year warranty
- Limited flexibility compared to other options
- A bit expensive
Why Buy: The SunPower 110 Watt Flexible Solar Panel offers gracious power generation and comes with a great warranty. This panel isn't a contortionist like some of its rivals, but it will do just fine fitting on most curved surfaces like a boat's Bimini top or the roof of a camper.
Best Beginner Kit: Renogy Solar Flexible Kit
The Renogy 100 Watt Solar Flexible Kit takes our overall pick for best flexible solar panel and pairs it with the components you need to hit the ground running. Includes the panel, charge controller, and connector cables for easy, DIY solar panel installation.
- Lightweight panel (4 pounds)
- Great flexibility
- Excellent low-light conversion
- Includes charge controller and cables
Why Buy: The 100W Renogy Flexible Solar Panel Kit is unmatched in adaptability and performance. With the included high-quality charge controller and connector cables, you'll be ready to go out-of-the-box.
Best Full Kit: Renogy 350 Watt Solar Flexible Kit
Generating over three times the solar power of other panels on this list, the Renogy 350 Watt Solar Flexible Kit will provide enough juice to power a swath of appliances and devices. The kit comes with two 175-watt panels that, like Renogy's 100-watt panel, are made of high-quality, ultra-thin bendable solar cells capable of flexing an impressive 248 degrees. With the included charge controller and connector cables, you'll be ready to make the most out of your sun-powered adventure.
- Lightweight for its size (6.2-pound panels)
- Great flexibility
- Excellent low-light conversion
- Includes charge controller and cables
Why Buy: If you need extra power on the go, the Renogy 350W Solar Flexible Kit is unmatched in adaptability and performance. With the included high-quality charge controller and connector cables, you'll be ready to go out-of-the-box.
Best Panel Under $150: Topsolar Flexible Solar Panel
At under $150, the Topsolar 100W Flexible Panel is a great budget option that's waterproof and durable, so you don't have to worry about putting it through the ringer. This panel is ideal for stringing, or connecting multiple panels to produce an overall higher power output. Plus, a surprisingly decent low-light conversion gives it 50% greater conversion efficiency than some conventional solar panels.
- Good capacity for the price
- Good low-light conversion
- Lightweight (4 pounds)
- Decent flexibility
- Lower optimal current than competitors
Why Buy: The Topsolar 100W Flexible Panel is an ideal place to start if you're buying your first flexible solar panel or if you have a tight budget. It offers the best value compared to other panels at this price range.
How Do Flexible Solar Panels Work?
As far as solar technology goes, flexible solar panels work in the same way that rigid panels do. The question then becomes: How do solar panels work in general?
Solar panels convert the energy of photons (light particles) into electricity through a process called the photovoltaic effect. When a photon hits a solar module, its energy causes electrons to flow within the solar cells, producing an electric current.
The resulting electricity is direct current (DC) power, which is commonly used in battery-powered devices. For household or commercial use, the DC power is converted into alternating current (AC) electricity with an inverter.
Types of Solar Panels
The heart of a solar panel is the cell, so let's start there.
- Monocrystalline cells are made of a solid silicon crystal. Mono cells allow greater electron flow, resulting in a smaller, high-efficiency panel. But they tend to be more expensive.
- Polycrystalline cells are made from many individual shards of silicon. They're not as efficient as mono solar energy cells, but poly cells come at a lower price point.
- Thin-film cells can be poly or mono, but they are up to 300 times thinner than their rigid counterparts. Apart from obvious benefits of flexibility, thin-film panels can provide better low-light performance than rigid panels. However, they tend to be less efficient overall.
How Much Do Flexible Solar Panels Cost?
Flexible solar panel costs vary depending on size, quality, efficiency, durability, materials, capacity, features and even brand name. Ranging from $150 for a single 100-watt panel up to $1,000 or more for multiple-panel units, flexible solar panel options exist for any on-the-go need and budget.
At the end of the day, it's not essential to buy the absolute best solar panels on the market, but we don't advise trusting your off-grid power to any old cheap model you see on Amazon.
Choosing the Best Flexible Solar Panel for Your Needs and Budget
Now that you've got an idea of how flexible solar panels work and the top models available, you may be interested in making a purchase. When you're ready to buy solar panels, here are a few things to keep in mind to narrow down the best options for your power needs and budget.
Design and Size
To start, determine the space you plan to place your new flexible solar panel. If it's a relatively large space (an RV roof, for example), you'll have more options to choose from. If it's a small space or an irregular surface, you'll want to look for more efficient, high-capacity panels.
You'll also need to consider if the space you plan to install on is flat or curved and whether it contains obstacles or obstructions. The good news is a slightly curved surface is usually no problem for flexible solar panels. If your installation space has a pronounced curve, make sure you purchase a flexible solar panel with enough range of motion.
The higher a solar panel's wattage, the more electricity it can produce under the same conditions. To accurately calculate how many solar panels you need, compare the daily output of the solar panel with the needs of the appliances or devices you want to power with solar energy.
Overall, flexible panels are less efficient than rigid ones, but they do tend to perform better in low-light situations. If you choose a less-efficient panel, you'll need more panels to produce the same amount of energy a more efficient panel would.
Where you live also plays a role in solar panel efficiency. Check the Renewable Resource Data Center for sunlight information for states and major cities.
Thankfully, flexible solar panels are extremely easy to install. Many flexible solar panels on the market come with adhesive backing and plug-and-play components, making it easier than ever to install your new solar system.
If you're in the market for a flexible solar panel, chances are you need it to stand up to the rigors of the road, water, or trail. Flexible solar panels are among the toughest options on the market, with most offering excellent weatherproofing, flexibility, and calculated construction to stand up to conditions a rigid panel wouldn't.
Cost is usually the limiting factor when choosing a flexible solar panel. If you're looking for something to power small electronics or keep your batteries topped off, you don't need to break the bank. For less than $250, you can get a ready-to-install kit ready. But a bit more power comes with a larger price tag. Purchase only what you need, and scale up by stringing panels together or upgrading your system if your needs grow.
FAQ: Flexible Solar Panels
Are flexible solar panels any good?
Yes, modern flexible solar panels provide an excellent, durable alternative to rigid panels. They can take a beating, are adaptable, and provide ample power for small appliances and batteries. The only downsides are they are a little less efficient than rigid panels and might not last as long.
Do flexible solar panels last as long as regular solar panels?
Generally, no, flexible solar panels do not last as long as regular solar panels. Rigid panels last anywhere from 25 to 40 years. Flexible panels maintain functionality for 15 to 25 years.
Can you walk on flexible solar panels?
Most flexible solar panels can be walked on. Check with your manufacturer to see if your panel can be walked on, and if doing so voids the warranty.
Which are the best flexible solar panels?
The best flexible solar panels have a high degree of flexibility, durability, and low-light conversion. We recommend the Renogy 100W Flexible Solar Panel.
Christian Yonkers is a writer, photographer, filmmaker, and outdoor junkie obsessed with the intersectionality between people and planet. He partners with brands and organizations with social and environmental impact at their core, assisting them in telling stories that change the world.
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