Solar panels are a fantastic alternative for anyone who wants to reduce their footprint or entirely disconnect from the grid. Over the years, they have become more efficient and less expensive, expanding their market. In fact, whereas solar panels were operating at roughly 14% efficiency in 1960, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) achieved 29.8% efficiency in January of 2016.
With this new generation of more efficient panels entering the market, prices have continued to drop. These changes to cost over time are explained by Swanson’s Law. This principle states that the price of solar modules decreases by roughly 20% for each doubling of capacity. 
Anyone who has converted a van or moved to a tiny home knows the numerous challenges involved. One of these challenges is finding an appropriate power source without needing to connect to the primary public power supply through traditional methods. Flexible solar panels are an outstanding solution to that problem and there are several great models available today.
Flexible vs Rigid: What is the Difference?
There are several differences between rigid solar panels and their flexible alternatives. Whether or not one is better than the other depends upon your needs, we hope to inform and help point you in the right direction to get the best flexible solar panel for your goals.
Many would consider rigid solar panels to be the best choice for efficiency. However, their fragility, weight, and need to be permanently mounted make them less than ideal for portability and stealth.
Rigid solar panels are encased in frames that are generally constructed of aluminum. The solar panel array is made of thick glass. These panels are stiff, flat, and heavy. They must be secured to the surface of the building with extensive hardware which involves drilling holes for screwing down the panels. For a RV or van conversion, this means potentially compromising the watertight exterior of your vehicle.
Rigid panels are often heavier by over 10 times per watt of their counterpart flexible panels.
Flexible solar panels can be considered by some to be superior to their stiffer counterparts in a number of ways. These primarily relate to how well they can be used for portable or stealth applications.
Their lighter construction makes them weigh roughly 75 percent less than rigid models for easier transport. While their surface is more prone to scratching, it is shatterproof unlike the glass of rigid panels. Furthermore, their flexible construction allows them to bend roughly 30 degrees which makes them ideal for mounting on curved surfaces such as those of a van roof or RV.
In addition, most flexible solar panels are easily installed with needing to drill or do any advanced electrical work. Some can even be glued down to the roof or your tiny house or van conversion. This means there is no need to ruin a watertight surface to install these panels.
Types of Flexible Solar Panels
There are three main types of flexible solar panel named based on the material and construction of the solar gathering cells of the panel. These are known as monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and amorphous. Each has its own set of benefits and drawbacks when compared with the others and again, the choice of which is best leans heavily upon where they will be used.
Often considered the most efficient panels, these contain solar cells made from the purest form of silicon. They are generally the most compact cells, making them use less space than others. They also tend to be the longest lasting option. However, these two features also often equate to the highest price. On the downside, these cells are highly intolerant to shade. Monocrystalline panels can be recognized by their dark monochromatic appearance with rounded angles.
Often cheaper and bigger per watt than their Monocrystalline cousins, these solar panels share the durability and longevity of those panels. The process of melting raw silicon that is used for their construction is much more time efficient and cost effective than that of mono models, making them less expensive. These panels are less powerful and less space efficient than mono models but tolerate shade better.
Completely different from the other two, Amorphous solar panels are often heavy, space intensive, and cost more per watt of power than their alternatives. Best in cloudy weather, these panels are not as severely affected by shade as monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels. Extremely durable, these panels are often seen sewn into backpacks and other cloth items.
Best Application for Flexible Solar Panels in Van Conversion
If you are converting a van to live in, flexible solar panels are an ideal choice for many reasons. These include the ease with which they may be installed, the ability to mount them to most curved surfaces, and what they lend to stealth.
Not only do they allow for total off the grid living with self-sustainable power, but they are ideal for stealth. Often, keeping the fact that your van has been converted for living a secret can be the difference between living in peace and being harassed by well-meaning citizens and police. While rigid solar panels are obvious and draw immediate attention, flexible panels can be hidden. Luggage and bike racks coupled with flush mounting is one way to keep permanently attached solar panels on the roof hidden from obvious detection.
The ability to install and remove quickly and easily is a major bonus for flexible solar panels. They are easily stored in the back of a van or RV making them ideal for van conversions and portable living of all kinds. Some even come with the ability to folded up and tucked away in an included case.
Flexible panels are easy and quick to install with the right tools. In fact, many can be mounted without using any tools whatsoever. A high strength adhesive like a water- and weather-proof tape such as Eternabond or 3M VHB tape is one of the best options. This means that there is no need to drill holes in the watertight exterior of your van. However, some may require one hole through which the wires to the charge controller can be run.
Flexible Solar Panels: Pros and Cons
As always, the specific needs of any individual or situation will determine how great of a pro or con a feature of flexible solar panels is. For example, while their lightweight nature would be a strong pro for those involved in van conversion, it would not matter as much to somebody with a tiny house. That is because the tiny house has a structure designed to support more weight than the van does. With that in mind, these features are more general guidelines than staunch rules.
- Lightweight for use on roofs without extensive structural support
- Ideal for temporary or short term use
- More affordable than rigid panels
- Flexibility to follow the contour of a curved roof
- Easy to transport
- Easy tool free installation
- Off the grid power source
- Do not allow for air flow or cooling, reducing life span
- Less energy efficient than rigid
- Shorter warranty period
- Lower total wattage generated compared to rigid
Many of the cons of flexible solar panels can be offset with a few simple steps. For example, the efficiency and life span of these panels is often reduced in comparison to rigid panels because rigid panels allow for air flow beneath while flexible panels are mounted flush to a surface and do not. By providing some method for air flow and cooling off the flexible panels, their energy efficiency and life span can be extended.
Want some tips on installing and wiring your solar panels then check out this guide!
Best Flexible Solar Panel Reviews
These eight flexible solar panels were chosen completely at random and are in no particular order. Their placement on this list does not indicate our endorsement or guarantee in any way.
This extremely lightweight flexible solar panel is ultra-thin and has up to a 248 degree arc. Ideal for uneven surfaces including the roofs of vans and RVs or the hull of a boat. Created with advanced polymers that make it weigh as much as 70 percent less than traditional panels, this solar panel is easy to transport and install.
At only a tenth of an inch thick, this panel is perfect for a stealthy van conversion. Designed to last, it can withstand snow loads as large as 0.54 pounds per square inch (psi) or 5400 Pa and extreme wind up to 0.24 psi or 2400 Pa. Made with ETFE materials, these panels are durable and self-cleaning with higher light transmittance and antifouling abilities.
Windy Nation makes a flexible solar panel that can flex up to 30 degrees. Ultra-thin at only one tenth of an inch thick, it can be flush mounted to curved surfaces such as those on vans, tents, little houses, and boats; among others. Both the panel itself and the junction box are water resistant and suitable for use in all weather conditions.
At roughly four pounds, this solar panel is easy to transport and mount. It has six evenly spaced mounting holes for classic mounting, or it can be attached using adhesive tape. These features make it ideal for use with vans or other mobile conveyances.
This thin monocrystalline flexible solar panel is ideal for van conversions and little house use as well as marine applications. In fact, it is water- and weather-proof making it suitable for all environments with a laminate coating on the exterior of the panel.
This flexible solar panel from ALLPOWERS employs SunPower solar cells that are made in the United States and boast monocrystalline panels that are roughly five percent more efficient than the competition. A lightweight 4.7 pounds, it is easy to transport, mount, and relocate.
This flexible solar panel by Winnewsun is perfect for mobile applications with its light four pound weight, slim 0.12 inch thickness, and flexible 30 degree bendability. Utilizing the SunPower solar cells, these panels are highly efficient even in weak light. Easily flush mount to any van, boat, RV, camper, or little house. This panel and junction box are water and weather resistant.
Easy to mount with six stainless eyelets evenly spaced around the edge. Can also be affixed with zip ties, silicon glues, and/or adhesive tapes.
RICH SOLAR’s flexible monocrystalline solar panel meets a number of applications where standard panels fall short. Made with ETFE material that provides higher light transmittance and a longer life span as well as self-cleaning and antifouling abilities. Lightweight design makes panels easy to transport, mount, and move while contributing to lower gas consumption on vehicles.
These features make this panel ideal for van conversions. At only one tenth of an inch thick, it is also perfect for stealth applications. Meticulously evaluated to withstand extreme wind conditions up to 0.24 psi or 2400 Pa and snow loads up to 0.54 psi or 5400 Pa.
While heavier than most on this list, Eco-Worthy’s flexible solar panel is still less than eight pounds. This makes it an excellent choice for RV, van conversion, and little house use. Measuring 52.5 inches high by 26.4 inches wide, this panel is less than a tenth of an inch thick making it wonderful for stealth installations.
With 32 solar cells and the ability to curve to a maximum of 30 degrees, this flexible panel is a wonderful choice for any irregular surface. Easy to install with adhesive, this sleek panel is barely noticeable wherever it is mounted.
This efficient solar panel is both portable and foldable making it the perfect choice for any situation. While it generates a mere 60 watts of output, it boasts a higher than average conversion efficiency that enables it to provide power that rivals larger wattages. Double output is available with 18 volt DC and 5 volt USB connections. Easily folds to resemble a briefcase for simple transport and storage. This solar panel is a smart choice for part time use by van conversions, RVs, and others.