Green Science Pictures
Green Science Pictures

Sheep rest by photovoltaic panels installed at Solarpark Rodenäs in North Friesland, Germany. This might be what you tend to think of when you contemplate solar panels. See more green science pictures.

Bert Bostelmann/Getty Images

Earth is plagued with disasters; hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanoes and earthquakes hammer our cities and reduce our homes to rubble. In the past, disaster refugees have been forced to live in tents for months, even years, while they struggle to rebuild.

Imagine how different things would be if, instead of just supplying shelter, those same tents provided electricity to power everything from cell phones to radios. If something as simple as a tarp could serve as a power station, that future could become a reality and we'd have solar energy to thank.

To anyone familiar with the solar panels of the past, the possibility that a tarp could turn sunshine into electricity is pretty amazing. Solar panels started off with a reputation for being bulky, expensive and difficult to install, not to mention fragile. For instance, the solar panels scheduled for installation at the White House in 2011 could run about $100,000, and like the solar panels added more than 30 years ago during the Carter administration, they'll be set in massive arrays angled precisely to capture the maximum amount of solar energy [source: Cappiello]. What's more, the rigid panels will be covered with glass to protect the sensitive photovoltaic cells underneath. Clearly, solar panels like the ones at the White House have very little in common with a tarp, but newer, thin-film solar cells are a different story.

Thin-film solar cells are manufactured to be much slimmer, more flexible and more durable than their predecessors. They can be rolled up or folded for transport and then quickly unfurled when needed, making them ideal for military applications or any situation where power outlets are scarce. Often that means remote and even hostile environments. Fortunately, this newer wave of solar cells can take a beating and still work efficiently, even if they've been punctured.

As impressive as these relatively newer solar cells are, they do have drawbacks, such as cost. Like traditional solar panels, they're often manufactured using silicon and, depending on the design, that can get expensive.

That's not the end of the story for slimmer solar cells though.