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Solar Panel Customization: Why, Available Options and How-to

In the eyes of most people, solar panels typically appear as rectangles in shape and dark blue or black in color plus with dozens of cells laid within. 

However, owing to the growing adoption of solar panels, their standard appearance, dimensions as well as electrical specifications may not fit particular needs.

This is driving up the demand for solar panel customization.

Below, we will explore the major topics that you would be concerned with regarding the customization.

Solar Panel Manufacturing Line

Why Do Solar Panels Need to Be Customized?

As just mentioned, solar panels may need to be customized for several reasons; explained in detail as follows:

Unique Installation

The majority of solar projects generally utilize traditional racking and mounting systems to secure panels. However, some sites may have unique architectural features, such as irregularly shaped surfaces, rooftops, facades and other elements, that either introduce a challenge for standard installation or raise a request for a more seamless integration.

In some cases, the available space for panels is limited. Custom-sized and shaped panels are necessary to maximize the use of the space for optimal energy production.

Aesthetic Preferences

Most mass-production panels on the market are either dark blue or black. This 'dull' may hinder the application of solar at sites that underline the maintenance of aesthetic integrity.

Thus, more and more modern buildings and historic architecture are seeking 'solarification' through building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV), where solar panels perform dual functions: serving as the pleasing outer layer of the structure while generating clean electricity.

Specific Power Requirements

Though the voltages, amperages and wattages of solar panels can vary, the values typically fall within a certain range for a certain panel model, largely attributed to average efficiencies of cells. 

For example, currently, the maximum power point voltage (Vmp), maximum power point current (Imp) and maximum power output (Pmax) of 72-cell commercial solar panels by and large range from 35 to 40 volts, 8 to 10 amps, and 300 to 400 watts, respectively.

If the project has more defined output requirements for the panels, a tailored electrical design for the panels is needed. This will ensure the panels provide the necessary power for the intended application.

Environmental & Durability Considerations

Average solar panels may experience durability and longevity issues when used in extreme environmental conditions, such as high humidity, sustained saltwater exposure or extreme temperatures.

The utilization of average panels at these sites may cause huge maintenance challenges, resulting in higher operating costs sooner than anticipated.

Solar panels should be built with premium materials and manufacturing techniques to withstand these specific conditions, for a prolonged lifespan and more stable performance.

In addition, some specialized applications entail the support of custom solar panels. For applications like recreational vehicles and portable devices, the panels used need to be lightweight, adaptable to the surfaces and easy to install and remove.
Accompanied by the broad deployment of distributed industrial and Internet of Things (IoT) applications, solar panels should also be customized to be seamlessly integrated into existing systems and devices.

Can All Types of Solar Panels Be Customized?

Technically, most types of solar panels, including monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels and thin-film panels, can be customized. The principal differences manifest in the customization options and difficulty.

The traditional, rigid, crystalline solar panels have dozens of solar cells exquisitely connected with metal contacts, while assembled with protective glass, backsheet, frame and related electronic accessories to form a complete panel.

CIGS solar panels, boasting the second largest thin-film panel market share, do not have traditional solar cell units like in the case of crystalline panels; rather, they have a continuous extra thin layer of photovoltaic material deposited on a substrate, such as plastic, to capture and convert energy.

The crystalline solar panel manufacturing involves more mechanical and thermal precision tasks, but these are generally more straightforward. In contrast, the thin-film solar panel manufacturing, such as CIGS, tends to be more intricate due to the sophisticated chemical processes involved and the need for achieving high thin-film uniformity.

It's not fair to state which technology is more complex to customize; rather, it should take into account all factors, including specific needs.

In overall terms, owing to the renowned bendability, lightweight, and flexibility, CIGS solar panels are suitable for broader applications, which, combined with advanced manufacturing techniques like roll-to-roll production, has led to a greater demand for customization.

What Are the Options for Solar Panel Customization?

Solar panels are customized in response to specific needs. Hence, in turn, the needs determine the available customization options.

The size and shape are the primary options. Custom-sized and/or shaped solar panels can fit specific design requirements or architectural features. By comparison, thin-film panels have much more flexibility in shape customization. Beyond triangular, circular and hexagonal, some other tailored shape options can be realized on them.

The color and texture of panels are important elements in BIPV. Solar panels can be customized with different colors and textures by adopting colored front sheets and textured surfaces, to match the aesthetics of the site. Even further, ‘solar skins’, which are aesthetic overlays, can be applied to solar panels to match the architectural style and color palette of the structure; though the efficiencies would be somewhat compromised.

As mentioned earlier, electrical specs of the panels can be re-designed to be compatible with the requirements of the power input of the systems or loads. Project developers can request manufacturers to produce the panels using upgraded materials with enhanced physical and chemical properties. Panels can also be equipped with various output connectors such as USB and DC barrel connectors besides MC-4 to suit different applications.

Dragon SCALEs Solar Glitter
"Dragon SCALEs solar glitter" (cropping) by Sandia Labs is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED

How to Customize Solar Panels: What is the Process?

Thanks to ongoing maturation of production technology and robust support of cutting-edge robotic manufacturing machines, customizing a solar panel is easier than before.

Here is an overview of the general steps involved:

Initial Consultation & Requirement Gathering

Conversations between the client and project manager of the service provider via phone or email would take place to grasp the project requirements, including power demands, site conditions and aesthetic preferences.

At this stage, on-site visit may also be necessary for full, more accurate measurement, review and finalization of initial plans.

Design

Based on the collected requirements and data, solar engineers will evaluate and determine the best configuration for the tailor-made solar panels, considering factors like size, shape, power output, materials and so on.

Then engineers will produce detailed panel drawings, which will include dimensions, materials, electrical specs (voltages, amperages and wattages), wiring and mounting mechanisms. This often involves creating 2D CAD drawings of the panel concept.

For some projects, engineers will also calculate and determine the number of custom solar panels required to meet the project demand. This process may also include sizing the inverter, battery and other components.

Prototyping & Testing

Manufacturers will then build and assemble functional prototypes based on the design.

This step may involve hand-built prototypes that are tested for performance and durability. Before entering batch production, some projects may require field testing to ensure the initial panels meet performance expectations under real-world conditions.

Permitting & Approvals

Some regions may have strict rules on any solar installations. 

As per the requirements of the local government, sometimes it is compulsory to submit the panel design to local government authorities for permitting. This step ensures that the installation complies with local building codes and regulations.

Next, engineers may make any necessary adjustments to the custom design based on feedback from the permitting authority and the client.

Production & Installation

If all’s approved, the custom panel will enter the batch production stage. Upon final inspection at the manufacturer, the products will be shipped to the client for installation. 

Some projects may also require a final inspection by local authorities to ensure the entire system is up to code and ready for operation.

Ongoing Support & Maintenance

Manufacturers will keep in touch with the client for ongoing tracking on the performance of the tailor-made panels and address any issues that may arise.

Wrapping Up

With the capability of providing clean, distributed and reliable (when coupled with energy storage) energy to power diverse applications, the market for customized solar panels is on a steady upward trend.

Being backed by continuous innovation in panel materials and techniques, the customization possibilities will be constantly expanding.

In any case, a clear understanding of the project and ongoing communication with the customization service provider is essential to make sure the panels perfectly suit the needs.

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