Thin Film Photovoltaic Module

What is a Thin Film Photovoltaic Module?

A thin film photovoltaic module is a solar module made with thin film technology rather than traditional crystalline silicon panels. Thin film modules are typically much lighter and cheaper to produce than their traditional counterparts, however their efficiency is often lower.

Key Takeaways:

  • Thin film photovoltaic modules are commonly made with cadmium telluride, copper indium gallium selenide, or amorphous silicon.
  • Thin film layers are typically between a few nanometers and 200 micrometers.
  • Despite its advances, thin film never penetrated more than 20% of the global solar market.

Understanding Thin Film Photovoltaic Modules

Thin film photovoltaic modules, also called thin film solar modules, are a type of solar module that is made by creating very thin layers of a photovoltaic material such as cadmium telluride or amorphous silicon on a substrate like glass or plastic to create lightweight or flexible solar panels.

Cadmium telluride (CdTe), copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) and amorphous silicon (a-Si) are three of the most common materials used for thin film photovoltaic modules.

Amorphous silicon (a-Si) is the oldest thin film photovoltaic technology. Thin film photovoltaic modules are constructed by using chemical vapor deposition to create a thin layer of material on a base of glass or other non-conductive material. Amorphous silicon is nontoxic and absorbs quite a large range of available light, but quickly loses its efficiency.

Thin film layers can vary from just a few nanometers to tens of micrometers – significantly thinner than traditional photovoltaic module layer thickness of 200 micrometers. This thin film allows thin film photovoltaic modules to be flexible and much lighter in weight than typical solar panels, allowing their use in a much wider range of applications from sports to vehicles and even as a building material. Some thin film photovoltaic modules can even be made semi-transparent or laminated onto windows.

Many commercial thin film photovoltaic module installations want modules to be more rigid and durable, so they are sandwiched between two panes of glass for protection. This causes these commercial panels to be much heavier than traditional solar panels, but due to the smaller amount of photovoltaic materials used they also often have a much smaller environmental impact as calculated across their entire lifecycle.

Thin film photovoltaic modules have been around since the 1970’s and have always been cheaper to produce than traditional silicon solar modules, however they are also typically less efficient than traditional crystalline silicon solar panels. That said, thin film technologies have developed significantly over the years and now reach an average of 21%+ efficiency, in many instances matching traditional solar panels. 

Despite these advancements in efficiency, weight, and cost, the market share of thin film photovoltaic modules never reached more than 20% market penetration and has actually been declining over the last several years to just 9% worldwide.

First Solar is the top thin film photovoltaics manufacturer, dominating the cadmium telluride thin film space. Presently, First Solar only serves the commercial market on mass-scale installations.

Related Terms

Photovoltaic Module – A collection of photovoltaic cells mounted together to collect sunlight for energy. Also, colloquially called a solar panel.

Photovoltaic Cell – A photovoltaic cell is a device that converts solar energy into direct current electricity for use in homes or businesses through the photovoltaic effect.

Solar Cell – A solar cell is the colloquial term for a photovoltaic cell which converts solar energy into direct current electricity for use in homes or businesses through the photovoltaic effect.