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Solar Info: Thin Film or Silicon?

Dear Solar Fred,

When people talk about solar panels, some talk about “Thin Film” and “Silicon.” Is there a big difference?

Rachel in Redondo

Dear Rachel,

Yes, indeed, there are several differences between Thin Film panels (below) and Silicon based panels (pictured left).

Silicon

  • Their technology is based on silicon, similar to computer chips. Silicon prices can go up and down. Right now, in 2009, it’s down, so silicon (a derivative of sand; yup, sand) is cheap right now.
  • These are the most common type of solar panels.
  • They’re the most efficient. In other words, they convert more sunlight into electricity than Thin Film panels do.
  • They’re more expensive on a per panel basis, but not necessarily on a per watt (power produced) basis.
  • They are inflexible and only come in solar panel form, although not necessarily as a rectangle shape. These are most common, however.

Thin Film

  • Thin film is made from different chemicals. Cadmium is one of the common ones, which is a toxic chemical. Thin film manufacturers have addressed this drawback by providing free recycling of panels at the end of their life.
  • Because Cadmium is cheap, Thin Film is cheap too. Hooray! But…
  • Thin Film is not as efficient as silicon panels. That means you need more panels on your roof to produce the same amount of energy as silicon panels. So, if you have only a little roof space, you’re better off with silicon panels.
  • On the other hand, thin film technology is more flexible. “Panels” can look like regular roofing shingles. Some can be installed through a “peel and stick” tin roof system or even sprayed on windows and walls.
  • You’ll pay a lot more for Thin Film “shingles” than square panels. Known as “Building-Integrated Photovoltaic” (BIPV) products, it’s meant for people who don’t like the look of solar panels on their roof.

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