Building Logs

Flexible Solar Panels

Posted by Paul

Many of you will know that for many years Jo and I have been running our own importing businesses and that Paul has been importing for his own company since 1997. The importing part is easy. Its finding the product or manufacturers that is difficult. Find the right product at the right price and the rest is easy.

When we started building the boat we also started sourcing products to go into the build. It is no secret to many Australian boat builders and to consumers generally now, that the same goods are available overseas much cheaper than we can buy them for here. In many cases you can buy from US or European retailers, pay freight and still save hundreds or even thousands of dollars on exactly the same brands available here. One of the things that really starts to irritate, is when the goods are made in China, ship to Europe or the US, and are then available cheaper to buy from EU or US including delivery back down to Australia when we are as close or closer to China in the first place, so we now know for sure that the old excuse of the distances needed to ship the goods to Australia is the reason for the higher prices is quite simply bulltish.

We helped Dennis on Nine Lives buy a brand new current model Lewmar windlass that retailed here for $1750, for $1050 delivered from a Canadian retailer ($895 retail plus freight, that is a staggering half the price!!) And that was 3 years ago when the exchange rate was about 15% worse than it is now. It took 5 weeks to get here, but he saved $700 for exactly the same model. Then just a few weeks later I was at SC boat show and saw the Lewmar remote control kits, “on special” at the show for $340 and rang him to tell him about them but told him to do a quick search online first. He bought it from West Marine shipped from the US for $140 and it arrived to him before I got back from the show! Come on guys, this is getting silly.

I will support local retail and manufacturing where I think the deal is fair, but for that kind of money difference, I am sorry Whitworths and Bias but that is silly money difference and there is no justification for it. It may not be your fault, maybe its the importer or high rents but it certainly isnt the freight or the exchange rate as was the excuse for many years because self importing sales via ebay and the freight consumers pay is way more than importers pay to import commercial quantities, we know we do it. So someone is getting fat. And what salespeople dont get is that contrary to appearances, most people building boats are doing so because they dont have the money to buy one! In other words, cash poor. Sometimes it seems that if you put the word marine in front of any item it translates to “has a boat so must have heaps of money so double the price”. Just starting or owning a boat makes some not so poor people turn into them. In our case our financial circumstances changed after we started building and our income dropped dramatically so we had no choice but to hunt for bargains to finish it. It was in our nature anyway (Jo says I have an inbuilt tightarse gene and that I set the prices I was willing to pay for things in the 60’s and wont buy until I find such pricing again!) and it was with this in mind that we first started importing the hatches we sell.

I simply couldnt see where the value in them is, after all they are simply a hinged aluminium or plastic frame with glass or plastic lens. Some simple but larger hatches are over $1000 each. We have been selling a similar size, similar or better quality hatch that we import from a reputed factory in the USA for $350 and we still get a little profit from it and the equivalent sizes retail here for more than double and in some cases (brands) triple what we sell them for. I could have doubled the price on ours and would still be undercutting some of the other brands. Its just crazy. By the way (shameless plug time) we are in the process of trying to wind down or sell out of our hatches for 2 reasons, first I want to go cruising when the boat is done so wont be able to warehouse and sell hatches any more and secondly the suppliers are such wonderful people (no, they dont read the blog!) that I want to do right by them and by customers here and pass this wonderful product on to someone that can fund it properly and keep everything in stock. I kept some customers waiting a long time while I got some money together to buy the previous shipment. So reluctantly we are getting out. So if you want to buy some hatches from me before I finish at super prices let me know soon because if I dont have them in stock or on my last order (I dont have hatches for my own boat, I sold them!) I am placing soon from the factory then you wont get them at my prices unless the next people to import them run their small business from home or with minimal overhead and do not need to price them in a normally commercial way or their rents are not squeezing the life out of them that they have to charge way over the odds for them, or whatever it is that causes Australian prices to be so much more than US and Euro pricing.

But that plug was not the reason for the post, this plug is. I have put together a solar panel import deal. Like it was originally intended with the hatches, I was planning on just a one time shipment in order to get the items I need for wholesale rather than pay retail. But if like the hatches, more demand arrives after this first deal is done and dusted I may do it again. More unlikely now that I am so close to finishing the boat but you never say never and it may be that I can put these kind of deals together while cruising and make a modest cruising kitty whilst providing other builders with good products at great prices (and this may apply to the hatches too, but only if the factory cannot find another importer in Australia, which given how good the product is, is probably unlikely).

So here is where we are at with the panels. I figure solar panels are a bit like hatches, in that they are super expensive for what they are, not really all that complicated (I even know of people that are making their own panels now and you can buy the parts on ebay and I even got an email from a reader that is going to do that for his boat) and the current technology and manufacturing processes are fairly mature, so in other words, the risks in importing ourselves rather than buy from an established expert retailer (by the way, many retailers know less than their customers, especially savvy ones that do their research first) is far outweighed by the benefits. That benefit of course is price. I have often said that the discount has to be substantial in order to make all the bother (and risk) worthwhile. In this case we are again talking about more than half price. And on something as expensive as solar panels this could be thousands of dollars saving, depending on the size array you were planning on having.

As with any product I research, I have a set of parameters I want and whilst other options may be available I am looking first and foremost for what I want or need and if that then fits in with what others want and I can put a deal togetther I am always willing to share that good fortune or at the very least make a very modest (5% -10%) margin for my efforts or to offset the risks I am taking. For example those risks are if there are faults or transit damage I wear that not you. Because of the type of products I have imported those damages have been minimal, there is also exchange rate risk again, if managed properly this is also minimal. And because most manufacturers have minimum order quantities that other risk is that I have to buy more than I need or have pre-sold and have to hold on to stock and sell it and if it does not sell I am stuck with them. So whilst minimal, the risks are there and that is why there has to be a little profit in it for me to do it in the first place or to do it again once the first shipment is done. I am not apologizing for it, nor justifying it, just letting you know its there. There is absolutely nothing stopping you importing stuff yourself if you can find a factory or agent that does not have a restrictive minimum, but usually if you go through an agent to avoid the larger order sizes, his margin (everyone needs to make something or else why would they do it) would be no smaller than mine, so often the small margin I take is made up for in better pricing from factories for putting together the bigger order anyway. So my gain is not your loss.

Anyway back to the product at hand. What I wanted to find and need is semi flexible ultra low profile panels. My boat has a very curved roof and flat panels are not ideal because they will have to sit well proud of the curved roof at some point, so curve-able panels is the solution I need to fit them  close to flush on the roof.  Originally this was only possible with the hopelessly inefficient Amorphous panels. I dont know a lot about them because at 7% efficiency, even my big roof was not going to be big enough to generate enough power from the footprint they require. So I scratched them from the list fairly quickly. Then manufacturers discovered that monocrystaline and poly (or sometimes known as multi crystal) panels could be fixed to a semi flexible substrate, in many cases they already were but were then stiffened with glass on top and an aluminium frame to protect the glass because the moment the panel flexes the glass would break, and packaged them into the panels that way. This is probably what you see on peoples roofs around the suburbs.

With the newer flexible panels, instead of glass the photo voltaic cells are embedded in a material called EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate) which is a clear plastic with good durability, UV stable and good characteristics for use in pv cells (lets maximum of light energy through) but it is not so flexible that it is self supporting, it needs a certain stiffness so as not to compromise the pv structures (each pv cell is joined to the next one with thin strips of conductive material), and they cannot be broken or the panel will stop working, hence the substrate to keep all of this in place. The silicon can also only bend a little because it too has similar properties to glass. So whilst the panels I have found are somewhat flexible they can only bend about 25% of their length or width and can really only bend in one direction. I have a slight compound (curves in 2 directions, left to right and front to back at the same time) in the front section of my cabin roof and my panels can bend in both directions a little.

I saw some really flexible panels at the last Sydney boat show that were not on an aluminium substrate which obviously contributed to their flexibility, very nice product but too expensive for me. They want about $800 for an 80 watt panel or in other words $10 per watt (they have 2 qualities and this is their lower quality panel price, the better quality panel was $1300 for an 100 watt panel). I plan on about 1000 watts and I simply cannot afford $13000 for my array. I am sure their panels are superb, but I figure 1000 watts of pretty good panels is better for me than 200 watts of superb panels.

The substrate on the panels I have is aluminium, I guess it could also be for example a simple fibreglass and resin panel so that they can be glassed directly onto a boat roof, but as they already make them with aluminium, getting them to make them to my specs would mean the minimums go from the current minimum of 50 panels to hundreds if not thousands of panels. So again I will settle for attaching the panels to the roof rather than glassing them down in a more permanent way.

Price will blind me to many imperfections and whilst the very flexible panels I saw at the boat show looked very nice, and these panels on aluminium are not quite as flexible, having said that they easily bend around my roof so they are plenty flexible enough for my needs, but that aside they dont look to be much different in terms of what they do (produce power from sunshine!) and for the massive difference in price they are plenty good enough for me. The higher priced panels from the other company (I wont mention their name in this public space, but I am happy to email it to you if the best is what you want and you have the money to have that) are rated at 22% efficient and their lower priced ($10 per watt) ones are rated the same as mine, at 18% efficient.

The factory price of my panels is about US$2.00 per watt which works out to about AU$2.50 per watt landed in Australia (shipping, customs clearance, import duty and gst). What I did with the hatches and I propose to do for the solar panels is to offer foundation customers what I call indent price. What that means is, if you order and pay for your panels from me in advance to me placing an order, so that I dont have to fund your order then you get them at landed cost plus 10% (my fee for putting the order together). After that, any stock I pay for and carry, you pay a little extra (in other words I start making some money for the aforementioned reasons) and will probably end up at around $3.50 per watt. If you are interested in paying $2.75 per watt 0r $275 for 100 watt semi flexible monocrystaline panels read on, if not, the rest of this post probably wont interest you too much (and of course you are in Australia, if you are not, the cost of shipping to you would most likely make them about the same as you could get them for from a reasonable retailer there, and of course going on the price of many items we see you enjoy you are already getting a fair deal).

The 100 watt panels are 1250mm x 550mm x 2.5mm and weigh about 2 kg’s each. The junction box is on the top (PV side) of the panel and includes both a bypass and blocking diodes and 300mm cables with clip on MC4 connectors and are wired for series connection. You can change the plugs to wire in parallel or put longer cables on if you wish, this is just the way I order them. They have smooth  and rounded edges with mounting rings in each corner. Besides permanently mounted to a solid roof they could be hung from those corner rings on ropes in a temporary set up.

I have 6 panels left from the first shipment, all of the customers that have them are happy with theirs. One of them sent me test results, he is on the Gold Coast and achieved 20.5 volts at 5.5 amps which is actually 112.75 watts from a panel rated at 100 watts. Whilst this is great, (it means the factory has rated them properly) the way solar panels are rated and tested is at a fixed nominal sunshine rate of 1000kw per square meter of panel. This is because the sun shines at different rates depending on where you are and when so a standardised method of rating is required to properly compare one panel to another without having to have them tested in the same location and at the same time to make a meaningful comparison. On the equator the actual sunshine intensity exceeds that of say Sydney and of course “when” relates to both time of day (the closer to noon the more direct the angle of light onto the panel) and time of year, obviously Summer light is more intense than Winter. Long story short I am very happy with result. Its Spring here, and the Gold Coast is a long way from the equator, so the panels perform well.

If these 6 panels sell and there are still buyers wanting some I will do another shipment, if not then that will be it. Send me an email if you are interested.

One last point about solar panel technology. It is about to change. When is the big question. There is a new type of panel being developed called multi junction solar cells. In effect they are multi layers of silicon designed to read different spectrum’s of light which are capable of about double the current  efficiency. The first commercially produced panels cost in the tens of thousands of dollars each, but its only a matter of time before they become reasonably priced and properly commercially produced (they are currently experimental rather than mass produced). So lets say we are 5 years from such panels, the last thing you want to do now is pay top dollar for current technology. At the same time, you dont want to go without until this new technology turns up, as I said, it could be 5 or even 10 years before they are ubiquitous and affordable.



* note that the panels on my boat roof still have the shrink wrap on them to protect them from the dust in my shed.

You May Also Like


1 Comment

  1. David Banfield

    Interesting reading, I also have seen the panels you are talking about at the local Perth boat show, nice but not cheap

    If you still have any panels or are looking at another shipment I would be interesting in getting two.



Comments are closed.