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Solar panels play an important role in serving our current and future energy
needs. However, current silicon-based technology can be expensive and cumbersome
to implement, which can explain why applications of solar technology are not
abundant. Lighter, more flexible panels made from plastic are about to change
the potential of solar energy, though.

Perhaps the most important reason to look forward to plastic panels is that
they will likely be inexpensive. Part of the reason why plastic panels will
be so inexpensive is that plastic absorbs very well. This means that only
very thin layers of plastic are needed to create efficient panels -- panels
can be made from plastic sheets as thin as one tenth of a micrometer.

As well, techniques used to print plastic solar panels tend to be more cost
efficient than creating silicon panels. Some manufacturers are suggesting
that plastic panels can be manufactured for 80 to 90 percent less than
silicon panels. This is an important factor in their widespread adoption
as an all-around energy source.

Considering the places and things that solar panels can power are
particularly important. Low-cost panels can provide energy to small
buildings such as sheds, tents, yurts, greenhouses, barns, and even
dog houses. Sunshades and awnings are also potential places for panels
to reside, in order to develop convertible year-round living spaces.
The more durable these plastic panels become, the more useful they
will be in applications where they are constantly exposed to the
elements; currently, silicon panels are the most advantageous in
this respect.

Another advantage of plastic panels is that they can be used in portable
applications due to their minimal weight. A variety of photovoltaic
startups are already including prototypes of their solar panels in
backpacks and umbrellas, as well as on cell phone chargers. Due to
their low manufacturing cost, some of these panels may even be used
in disposable electronics, as well as in a variety of emerging
solar-powered clothing.

How long will we have to wait for plastic panels? Technically, plastic
models are available today, but the most widely available models are as
little as six percent as efficient as traditional silicon solar panels.
This means that their applications are limited. However, a handful of
startups are on track to widely release high-capacity plastic panels by
as early as early 2011. These panels will provide at least 10 percent
of the efficiency of silicon panels, and will be considerably less
expensive.

Super high-efficiency panels that capture over 95 percent of incident
light are currently in development. However, current prototypes of
these cells are very small and provide very little voltage. Despite
that limitation, their discovery suggests that there is a lot of
powering potential for the future of plastic panels. It is important
to note that it is currently possible to purchase flexible plastic
panels with three to five percent efficiency. However, these panels
are far less useful than what will soon be available.

Plastic solar panels represent the future of what solar power can
provide. Considering the examples of what these new, lighter panels
can power, it is certainly an exciting future. Despite current technical
limitations, it is important to remember that the future of solar
research is not far away.

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