Tuesday 4 October 2016

Thin Film Solar PV vs Silicon Wafer - Which is Better?

A guest article by Dr KT Tan cuts through the marketing to find out

Figure 1 (Source: Jethro Betcke, Oldenburg University, Germany)

Thin film solar PV was hailed as the next big thing in solar nearly a decade ago. Then, crystalline silicon wafer (c-Si) cells occupied more than 80% of the market share compared to thin film PV (1). There was a high anticipation in the industry for thin film PV to position itself for a run at c-Si and dominate the market for the near future. However, 10 years on, history shows that not only did thin film fail to conquer the market, but its market share has subsequently declined to only 7% (2).

Obviously, one major factor was due to the collapse of the price for c-Si cells, which quickly wiped off the cost advantages of thin film technologies. This blog is not going to discuss the reasons for this distorted market competition, caused mainly by the exponential expansion of production in c-Si cells, but to question and compare the technical merits of thin film PV versus c-Si.

Do thin film PV technologies have an arsenal of special features to outperform c-Si cells? 

Low Light Performance

The first common belief is that thin film solar PV performs better in low light conditions or diffuse sunlight (for example on a cloudy day). But is this true? The fact that this has been heavily promoted by the marketing guys is because these two technologies do have different spectrum responses to solar light. In other words, their ability to convert solar energy to electricity varies at different wavelengths. In general, the average wavelength in diffuse sunlight is shorter (i.e. more blue) that of direct sunlight – so if you have a spectral response peaking at short wavelengths, e.g. thin film amorphous silicon (a-Si), then you would perform better under diffuse conditions than clear sky conditions.

Figure 1 for shows the different spectrum responses of different solar technologies against the power of sunlight of different wavelengths at sea level at mid-lattitudes of Earth (called AM1.5).  Crystalline monocrystalline silicon (labelled m-Si) is compared against different thin film solar technologies based on amorphous silicon (a-Si), Copper Indium Gallium Selenide (CIGS) and Cadmium Telluride (CdTe).

If you look at Figure 1, you probably would have noticed that not all thin film technologies have the same performance response to differing light wavelengths. Thin film CIGS solar panels, for example, have a broad spectrum response akin to mono-crystalline wafer cells (m-Si), so based on this their performance in diffuse lighting conditions would be little different to m-Si.

Amorphous Silicon has a quite significantly different spectral response to crystalline silicon, with a greater response to low wavelength light.  So how do they compare in field trials? Figure 2 illustrates the results of a comparative study between a-Si and c-Si on a cloudy day. On average, the tests show an increase in energy generated of 15% for a-Si at low irradiance levels below 260 W/m2.  (Note: the tests were published by NexPower, a manufacturer of amorphous Silicon panels)
Figure 2 (Source: NexPower In-house test report)

However, performing better on cloudy days is of little benefit if it is combined with performing less well on sunny days (when more energy can be collected). If this were the case then the advantage of thin film PV under diffuse conditions might be a complete red-herring created by the marketing gurus.

A recent research project (3) supported by the Deutsche Bunderstiftung Umwelt (German Federal Foundation for the Environment) compared several solar module types (including thin film and c-Si) under North German Climatological conditions in a side by side trial for a year, and it turned out that no significant difference between the performances of the different type of modules could be found .


Let’s move on to the second common claim, that thin film PV are more immune to shading effects. There is no magic physics in thin film technologies that make them less tolerant to PV’s number one enemy – partial shading, except that the cells in thin film panels are usually very long and narrow (5 to 10mm wide and the whole length of the panel). In this case, the likelihood of total cell shading is diminished, provided that the installer has correctly oriented the solar modules. Most modern thin film solar modules have further split the narrow cell into multiple sections and incorporated by-pass diodes (4). Nevertheless, if they are not oriented wisely to avoid potential shadows, then it is back to square one (See figure 3).

Figure 3a: Correct orientation to shading           Figure 3b: Incorrect orientation to shading
(Source: Technical Note – Optimising Thin-Film Module PV Systems by SolarEdge)

High Temperature

Finally, how about the claims for superior heat resistance of thin film PV? This is perhaps the only undisputable advantage of thin film technologies – intrinsically, they all have a better temperature coefficient compared to s-Ci (5). In other words, their performance does not degrade as quickly as s-Ci when cell temperatures increase above 25oC.  However, as figure 4 shows, different thin film technologies display a wide variation in temperature response.  Amorphous Silicon (a-Si) is least affected by temperature, whereas CIGS solar panels are very similar in performance to crystalline Silicon.

Fig. 4 Variation of Power Output with Temperature for Different Solar Technologies
 Source: Virtuani. A, Pavanello. D and Friesen. G. Overview of Temperature Coefficient of Different Thin Film Photovoltaic Technologies, 25th European Photovoltaic Solar Energy Conference and Exhibition. 2010, Spain.

A comparative study between amorphous silicon and crystalline silicon suggests the benefit can be up to 20% more output on a hot day with an average ambient temperature of 34oC. See Figure 5. (Note: the tests were published by NexPower, a manufacturer of amorphous Silicon panels).

Figure 4 (Source: NexPower In-house test report)

Although the above result may sound impressive, you may be wondering which parts of the world regularly has an average ambient temperature above 30oC. Unsurprisingly, some research bodies in countries likes, Thailand (6) and India (7), have recommended thin film PV for precisely this reason.

In Summary

Bringing all these factors together, a collaborative research project carried out by Universities of Stuttgart and Cyprus compared thin film PV and c-Si by measuring actual performance over many years in Cyprus (8). The data has obviously taken into account all the differences in spectrum responses and temperature coefficients, the results are summarised in Figure 5.  Data for four years is presented from 2007 (labelled a) to 2010 (labelled d). The clear conclusion from this multi-year side by side test is that thin film modules do not outperform crystalline silicon modules.

Figure 5 Muli-Year Comparison of Solar Energy Yield from Different Technologies
(Source: Reference 8 – page 222)

There appears to be no clear technological advantage for thin-film PV against c-Si at present. In order for thin-film PV to experience a revival, there must be other factors involved which would make thin film PV more attractive than crystalline silicon solar PV. 

For example the homogenous appearance of thin film panels may make them look more appealing.
Thin film solar can be printed on any thickness of substrate and combine with other materials to form see-through graphics, stained glass, company logos, and blinds. With the ability of being semi-transparent, they could even mimic the appearance of natural materials, for example wood or marble.

Needless to say, apart from such niche applications, thin film PV also needs to gain more headroom in cost advantage against c-Si to offset a lower overall efficiency. Until then, it seems like c-Si will stay on top for now.


(1) http://www.marketsandmarkets.com/Market-Reports/thin-film-pv-31.html
Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation: Special Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
(2) Photovoltaics Report by Fraunhoher Institute for Solar Energy System. 6 June 2016www.ise.fraunhofer.de
(3) FLINS Project (www.flins-projekt.de) hosted by Universitat Oldenburg, Germany (http://www.uni-oldenburg.de/en/physics/research/ehf/energiemeteorology/research/former-projects/flins/).
(4) Correspondence with NexPower (www.nexpw.com )
(5) Overview of Temperature Coefficients of Different Thin Film Photovoltaics Technologies by Alessandro Virtuani, Diego Pavanello, Gabi Friesen at 5th World Conefrence on Photovoltaic Energy Conversion, Spain (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/256080289)
(6) Investigation on Temperature Coefficients of three types Photovoltaic Module Technologies under Thailand Operating Condition by P. Kamkird, N. Ketjoy, W. Rakwichian and S. Sukchai. Published on Procedia Engineering 32 (2012) 376 – 383.
(7) Variation of Temperature Coefficient of different technology Photovoltaic modules with respect to irradiance by P. Dash and N. Gupta. Published on International Journal of Current Engineering and Technology, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Feb 2015).
(8) Performance of Photovoltaics under Actual Operating Conditions by G. Makrides, B. Zinsser, M. Norton and G. Georghiou (pages 201 to 232). Third Generation Photovoltaics ISBN 978-953-51-0304-2. March 2012.