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The solar panel is an enduring icon of the quest for renewable energy. You'll see the black-paned rectangles on the rooftops of houses or assembled into arrays across fields and prairies. But the panel as we have come to know it -- 5.5 feet by 2.75 feet by 2 inches (1.7 m by 0.8 m by 5 cm) -- may be history. That's because a new type of technology stands ready to take its rightful place next to traditional silicon wafer-based panels as an efficient, cost-effective way to convert sunlight into electricity. The technology is the thin-film photovoltaic (PV) cell, which, by 2010, will be producing 3,700 megawatts of electricity worldwide [source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory].

Beyond 2010, production capacity will increase even more as thin-film PV cells find their way into solar-powered commercial buildings and homes, from California to Kenya to China.

Other than their flexibility, how do thin-film solar cells compare to traditional solar cells? Why are they more cost efficient? And are they the kind of energy source that will make solar power a truly viable alternative to coal and nuclear power? Read on to find out more.