Solar panel manufacturers are racing to improve the cell's efficiency. The advantages of better efficiency mean smaller footprint, lower balance-of-system cost and cheaper installation cost. Thin-film solar cells have several advantages over conventional silicon cells. They can be deposited onto a substrate, are flexible and less sensitive to shadowing and high-temperature.
The latest breakthroughs in thin-film cell efficiency are:
(1) CdTe (cadmium telluride): 18.3% by GE. It is a full percentage higher than the 17.3% achieved by First Solar last year.
(2) CIGS (copper-indium-gallium-diselenide): 20.4% by Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa) on a flexible polymer substrate foils. Empa breaks it own record made about 2 years ago of 18.7%.
(3) CIS (copper-indium-selenium): 19.7% by Solar Frontier, beating a decade-long mark of 18.6%.
(4) Organic tandem cell: 12% by Heliatek.
It's important to remember, though, that these technologies first have to become manufacturable at cost and scale, and perform in the field at least on par with what's already out there. Translating these champion cell numbers to module performance, silicon cells typically lose about 10% of their efficiency; for thin-film it's more like 20%.