Types of Solar Panels
There are three standard types of solar panel options right now. Each has differences in make, cost, appearance, and performance. Additionally, the type of installation varies for each, so that can factor into your decision-making process. The types of solar panels include:
Each type has pros and cons. This guide will break down each option and go over a few key factors to help you choose the best solar panel type for your property.
Types of Solar Panels: Closer Look at Your Options
About 90% of solar panels (also known as photovoltaics) today are made with some form of silicon.
The silicon used can take many forms. Still, the most notable distinctions come from the purity of the silicon.
Purity refers essentially to how well-aligned the silicon molecules are inside the panel. The better aligned the silicon cells, the better the solar cell can convert sunlight into electricity.
Though purity is something to consider, it’s only part of the equation when deciding on the type of solar panels to install. Here’s a closer look at each of the three types:
Monocrystalline Solar Cells
Monocrystalline solar cells are recognizable for their attractive dark black color. Sometimes also called “single-crystalline,” these cells are manufactured from a very pure type of silicon.
This pure silicon converts sunlight into electricity more efficiently. Not only do these solar cells convert energy the best, but they also don’t need to occupy a lot of space. They typically have a warranty that lasts up to 25 years, which is another attractive feature.
The biggest pitfall for monocrystalline panels is their hefty price tag. They are the most expensive option simply because the cutting process wastes a decent amount of silicon material. During some manufacturing processes, half of the silicon is lost. Unfortunately, the cost is still passed to the consumer.
Another disadvantage is that, when these solar cells are partially covered (by shade, dust, snow, etc.), the entire circuit may break down. A good fix if this is an issue is installing micro-inverters or optimizers.
Here are the pros and cons of monocrystalline solar panels at a glance:
- Pros: higher efficiency, better performance, space-efficient, longer-lasting
- Cons: higher cost, doesn’t do as well when covered unless coupled w/other technology
Polycrystalline Solar Cells
Polycrystalline solar cells showed up in the 1980s and were the first silicon solar cells on the market. Also called polysilicon, these solar panels are made by melting and pouring silicon into square molds, which is why they are square-shaped.
This process reduces waste as all of the silicon is used. This also reduces the cost of solar panels, making them a much more affordable option as compared to monocrystalline solar panels.
This affordability comes at a price. These panels are less energy-efficient and take up more space than single crystalline panels. The purity of the silicon is lower than in monocrystalline solar cells, so polycrystalline solar cells are larger.
These solar panels are also less heat-tolerant and don’t function as efficiently during high temperatures.
Here are the pros and cons of polycrystalline panels at a glance:
- Pros: lower cost
- Cons: lower efficiency, take up space, lower performance in high temperatures
Thin-Film Solar Cells
Manufacturers make thin-film solar panels from different materials, including cadmium telluride (CdTe), copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS), and amorphous silicon (a-Si).
Thin-film panels are not made up of silicon wafers, and typically have some other panel placed over them like glass, plastic, or metal with electrodes to capture the electrical current.
The silicon in amorphous solar cells, or thin-film panels, is not structured or crystallized as it is in other types of silicon-based panels. In fact, the name amorphous refers to this lack of shape.
You may recall amorphous solar cells from pocket calculators and the like. These cells have been frequently used in smaller products due to their low power output.
However, manufacturers discovered that stacking several amorphous solar cells together increases their power performance substantially.
Thin-film solar panels are lightweight, flexible, and easier to transport and install. The flexibility of these panels allows them to mold over curved surfaces, meaning there are more options of where to install them.
A downside is that thin-film solar panels require more panels due to their low efficiency. Additionally, these panels tend to degrade faster, and often come with a shorter warranty than other types of solar panels.
Here are the pros and cons of thin-film solar panels at a glance:
- Pros: lower manufacturing costs, portable, flexible, easier to transport and install
- Cons: lower efficiency, higher installation cost, environmental concerns with cadmium panels, take up space, fast degradation
Types of Solar Panels FAQs
Solar panels are a significant investment, and it’s important to understand the differences in each panel type to make an informed decision. These are answers to some of the questions we most commonly get:
Which Solar Panel Produces Most Electricity?
Monocrystalline solar panels have the highest efficiency and power rate. From a percentage standpoint, monocrystalline panels can reach efficiencies higher than 20%. In comparison, polycrystalline panels reach efficiency levels of around 15-17%.
Monocrystalline panels also have higher wattage modules, which contributes to the power capacity.
Which Solar Panels Look the Best?
The three types of solar panels are each made differently, so they have different aesthetics.
Monocrystalline panels have a black appearance due to how light interacts with pure silicon. Polycrystalline panels have a blue tone due to light reflecting differently off silicon fragments.
Thin-frame panels have a lower profile and thinner appearance, making them the slimmest of all the solar panel options.
Which Solar Panels Are the Most Cost-Effective?
Monocrystalline panels are the most expensive to purchase due to the manufacturing process. However, they take up less space, are more energy-efficient, and come with a longer warranty than other panels. If you keep your property for a long time, the cost evens out eventually.
Polycrystalline solar panels cost less than monocrystalline because cells are made from less pure silicon. Additionally, less product is wasted during manufacturing. The manufacturing process is more straightforward, and manufacturers pass those savings onto you.
Thin-film panel pricing varies depending on the type of material used for the panels. CdTe is the least expensive solar panel to manufacture, while CIGS panels are the most expensive. Thin-film panels cost less to install because they are flexible and lighter-weight.
Which Type of Solar Panel Is Best for My Installation Needs?
The type of solar panel you choose is largely dependent on your situation and type of property you plan to install them on.
Each type of solar panel has pros and cons, as listed above. Take into consideration how much property you have to work with, what your budget is, and how long you plan to keep the property.
One consideration for thin-film solar panels is whether you’re installing on a large commercial building. These panels work best when you can support a greater number of panels and don’t want extra weight on the roof.