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5 Ways to Compare Solar Film and Solar Panels

As the world grapples with 21st-century environmental challenges, clean, renewable energy sources have taken center stage—in particular, solar power.

Since the 1980s, when solar panels first became available for use by the average citizen, they’ve been the go-to choice for harnessing the sun’s energy. Solar panels are converting sunlight to electricity in thousands of residential, commercial, industrial, and transportation applications as well as in the space program.

Usually installed in groups (called arrays or systems), solar panels harvest sunlight and convert it into electricity via a series of photovoltaic cells. The cells generate electrons when exposed to light, producing a direct current of electricity that can be stored in batteries or used to power machines, appliances, or devices. 

For a typical American residence using anywhere between 886 kWh to over 10,600 kWh per month, solar panels can produce up to 850 kWh of electricity every year, although actual results depend on the household’s location, circumstances, and number of solar panels installed.

More recently, though, a newer technology is (literally) generating buzz: Solar film.

About Solar Film

Solar film is a thin, flexible material, made from hydrocarbons, that can be applied to windows, roofs, and many other types of surfaces. It works on the same energy-generating principles as solar panels: it can capture sunlight and convert it to electricity.

Solar film is lightweight and fairly straightforward to install. It’s versatile enough to adhere within smaller spaces or to seamlessly coat curved structures and complex surfaces, from drone wings to boat sails.

Let’s compare solar film to conventional solar panels across five characteristics—aesthetics and integration, energy efficiency, cost-effectiveness, durability, and environmental benefits.

Solar Film vs. Solar Panels: Harnessing the Sun’s Power

1. Aesthetics and Integration

  • Solar film: When it comes to aesthetics, solar film wins. Its primary advantage: It’s unobtrusive. The film can be applied directly to existing surfaces and is nearly invisible, making it both a space-saving option and an ideal choice for buildings where preserving design or architectural integrity is important. While harnessing solar energy, this discreet film allows natural light to enter the building.

  • Solar panels: Solar panels are quite effective, but they tend to be bulky and require sizable, dedicated space. This often calls for placement atop roofing or in a larger, open area, which tends to make the panels quite conspicuous and, in some cases, may affect the aesthetics of a building or landscape.

2. Energy Efficiency

  • Solar Film: Like solar panels, solar film is designed to capture sunlight and convert it efficiently into electricity. It can lower energy consumption by helping to regulate indoor temperatures. For instance, by blocking a portion of the sun’s heat, it may reduce the need for air conditioning during hot months, leading to energy savings. On average, solar film currently converts about 8% of the sun’s rays to electricity.

  • Solar Panels: Compared to solar film, panels are generally more efficient at converting sunlight into electricity, although they typically require at least four hours of robust sun per day. Solar panels generally convert about 20% of the sun’s rays into energy, although some photovoltaic cells are reaching close to 50% efficiency, making panels a better choice for commercial use and larger energy needs.

3. Cost-Effectiveness

  • Solar Film: Solar film is generally more budget-friendly than traditional solar panels. Installation costs are lower, and it doesn’t require structural modifications or supplemental support systems. It can also pay for itself quickly, making it an attractive option for homeowners and businesses looking to save on energy bills.

  • Solar Panels: Solar panels are typically more expensive than film, particularly during initial installation. Panels require mounting structures, wiring, and sometimes roof reinforcement, which can add to the overall cost.

Solar panels and solar film at home
Gus Ruballo x Unsplash

4. Durability

  • Solar Film: Solar film withstands harsh weather conditions and UV radiation. Most film products come with durability and performance warranties of about 10-15 years and up to 30 years on windows, with proper care.

  • Solar Panels: Solar panels are known for their durability and often come with extensive performance warranties of 25-30 years.

5. Environmental Benefits

It’s a tie! Both solar film and solar panels can essentially reduce a structure’s carbon footprint by generating clean, renewable energy. This contributes to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and helps combat the effects of climate change.

Solar film at home on window
Solar film |

The Future of Solar Film

Although solar film has already been used quite effectively on common everyday surfaces like windows, the technology is still in its infancy, but promising applications are being prototyped and tested for even larger-scale uses.

In the space program, the sky’s literally the limit for solar film. At Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), engineers have developed and fabricated, flexible, super-thin-film of solar cells that are 100 times lighter than standard solar panels. These solar “skins” generate about 18 times the power per kilogram of traditional solar panels and can turn any surface into a power source.

Using Solar Film at Home

There are currently a number of manufacturers of solar film for residential use. If you choose to install the film on windows or other at-home surfaces, here are a few basic guidelines (be sure to follow the manufacturer’s specific instructions):

  • Clean the surface: Begin by cleaning the window or surface thoroughly. Any dust, dirt, or debris may affect the adhesion of the film.

  • Measure and cut: Carefully measure the window or surface, and cut the solar film to the appropriate size, leaving a small overlap on each side.

  • Peel and apply: Remove the protective backing from the film and apply it to the surface, starting from the top and working your way down. Use a squeegee to smooth out any air bubbles and ensure a tight seal.

  • Trim excess film: Trim any excess film from the edges with a sharp utility knife.

  • Final inspection: Check for any remaining air bubbles or imperfections, and use the squeegee to remove them.

  • Allow to dry: Solar film may take a few days to fully adhere and dry, so be patient.

The Takeaway

Both solar film and solar panels have their own unique advantages and applications. An informed choice between the two depends on the specific scenario:

  • Solar film can offer a sleek, discreet solution for capturing solar energy in smaller-scale applications while preserving the aesthetics of a building.

  • Solar panels are known for high efficiency and larger-scale energy production.

The sun’s energy is, perhaps, our most valuable resource. By using it wisely, we can reduce our carbon footprint and contribute to a greener, more sustainable planet and a cleaner, brighter future.


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