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The Complete Guide To Types Of Solar Panels

Jun 30, 2022


Solar shoppers now have many types of solar panels and inverters to choose from. Although more options are generally a good thing, it can also be confusing to determine which type of solar panel is best for your home.

Each one has its own advantages and disadvantages. And although the type of solar panel technology is important, panels vary by solar energy manufacturer, so it is critical to also consider the reputation and warranties of the company making the panels.

The Most Common Solar Panel Types

The three most common types of solar modules are monocrystalline, polycrystalline and thin-film. Each solar panel system has different features and benefits, so it is helpful to be familiar with all three types of modules before purchasing a solar power system. Many solar panel manufacturers make both monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels.

Monocrystalline Solar Panels: Efficiency And Performance

Silicon is an element that is a highly efficient semi-conductor. Monocrystalline modules are made of pure silicon, and as the name implies, they contain a single silicon crystal made into cylindrical ingots. Monocrystalline solar panels are often considered premium modules because they have some advantages over polycrystalline technology.

These solar modules have a black appearance and not a blue hue. Often, monocrystalline solar panels are between 17 and 23% efficient according to manufacturers, and commonly have the highest efficiency rating. That means they are often more effective in converting sunlight into solar electricity than other technologies. Solar panel efficiency is important because homeowners can generate more electricity within a limited space.

Also, this solar panel technology has a slightly lower temperature co-efficient than polycrystalline panels. In other words, these solar panels are more efficient in generating power in warmer temperatures compared to other solar technology, when all other factors are equal.

The temperature co-efficient is the percentage reduction in electricity production as solar panels increase above 25 degrees Celsius (77 degrees Fahrenheit). The temperature co-efficient states the loss of production per degree Celsius over 25 degrees, so it is ideal for the number to be as close to 0 as possible. With crystalline solar panels, the temperature co-efficient is commonly between -0.3% and -0.5% per degree Celsius.

However, the temperature co-efficient of thin-film is commonly around merely -0.2%, which is preferable.  If you live in a climate where temperatures often exceed 77 degrees Fahrenheit, this is an important consideration. But, if you live in a relatively cool climate, the temperature co-efficient isn’t a top priority.

Both monocrystalline and polycrystalline solar panels have a long lifespan of 25 years or more. However, monocrystalline solar panels are often more expensive because they require a more complex manufacturing process. Deciding whether monocrystalline solar panels are worth the additional cost usually depends on whether or not roof space is limited and if you want the sleek look of black solar panels. 

Polycrystalline Solar Panels: Lower Cost But Less Efficiency

The first solar panels developed were polycrystalline, and the manufacturing process involves melting fragments of silicon together to form a wafer. These solar panels have a blue hue that can make these solar modules stand out more on a roof. The panels don’t have a completely uniform color, drawing more attention to them.

In addition, they are often less efficient than monocrystalline PV technology. In fact, most polycrystalline panels have between 15 and 17% efficiency ratings. This means they are commonly less efficient than monocrystalline technology but more efficient than most thin-film solar technologies.

However, they also usually cost less than monocrystalline modules because the manufacturing process is simpler. Thus, installing polycrystalline solar panels can help reduce the upfront cost of your solar energy system. However, if low cost is a top priority, thin-film solar might be a more economical option.

When financing a solar system, the cost of the solar panels is less critical because it is spread out over multiple years. However, the solar savings from using more efficient solar panel panels might result in much greater energy production over the life of the equipment. Therefore, when space is limited, monocrystalline solar panels might easily pay off with additional savings.

Thin-Film Solar Panels: A Solution For Certain Needs

This solar technology has a thin film of solar photovoltaic (PV) material on a substrate, such as plastic, glass or metal. Thin-film solar cells are thinner than human hair and are often flexible, enabling installers to use adhesive to stick them to surfaces. Because thin-film solar can be installed on substrates that don’t contain glass, they are shatter resistant. They either have a black or blue appearance, depending on the technology.

Unfortunately, thin-film technology is less efficient than crystalline solar panels, so it is often used in industrial applications where space is not a big concern. However, it has a low temperature co-efficient and performs well at high temperatures. Also, thin-film solar usually has a lower cost, making it especially appealing in certain applications. This technology uses fewer materials and is easier to manufacture and transport than crystalline PV panels.

Often, thin-film applications are more aesthetically pleasing. For example, manufacturers can incorporate thin-film panel technology into building elements, such as glass or roof tiles. This approach is called Building Integrated Photovoltaic (BIPV) because solar cells are manufactured into the building products themselves. BIPV allows buildings to generate electricity on vertical surfaces as well as the roof, making use of otherwise unproductive space.

Common Types Of Thin-Film Solar Panels

There are three types of thin-film solar cells: Amorphous silicon (A-Si), Cadmium Telluride (CdTe) and Copper Indium Gallium Selenide (CIGS). Each thin-film solar cell technology has its own pros and cons. Therefore, certain technologies are more popular in certain applications, depending on the constraints.

Amorphous silicon

A-Si thin-film solar cells use fewer toxic materials to manufacture, so they feature some environmental advantages over CdTe and CIGS technologies. They’re also flexible, use less silicon, and are commonly used in consumer electronics thanks to their durability.

However, their efficiency ratings are far lower than monocrystalline and polycrystalline solar cells.

Cadmium Telluride

Although CdTe technology features lower manufacturing costs, cadmium is a toxic heavy metal that requires special care during the manufacturing and decommissioning processes. CdTe cells are commonly between 10 and 11% efficient, which is significantly lower than other solar panel types.

Copper Indium Gallium Selenide

CIGS can offer efficiency comparable to monocrystalline cells while also being flexible. However, this thin-film PV technology is also more expensive than the other thin-film products and is on par with crystalline solar panel prices. It has a similar efficiency rating to monocrystalline solar but can be installed on flexible substrates and is lighter weight than crystalline solar panels. Therefore, it is ideal for certain applications, such as vehicles and aircraft.

Unfortunately, CIGS contain a cadmium sulfide buffer layer, which is toxic and carcinogenic to humans. To reduce risk, researchers are developing CIGS thin-film technology that doesn’t contain toxic chemicals.

What Is The Best Type Of Solar Panel For Homes?

Polycrystalline solar panels are a popular option for commercial buildings and solar farms with ample space for solar panels. In these applications, a lower cost is more important than the efficiency rating.

Choosing the best solar panel technology for your home requires reviewing your project goals and budget. If black solar panels are appealing, your roof space is limited and there is space in the budget, monocrystalline solar panels are an excellent option. On the other hand, if you want to cut down the project cost and efficiency isn’t as high of a concern, thin-film or polycrystalline solar panels are a good choice.

Thin-film solar is often most appealing for specialized uses, such as RVs or roofs that can’t handle the weight of other solar panels. And if you live in a very hot climate, it is worth considering because they perform well in high heat conditions.

All three technologies can qualify for the federal solar tax credit. This can help significantly lower the total net cost of installing a solar system.

The Bottom Line: Different Solar Panel Types Meet Different Needs

Solar shoppers have several different types of solar panel technology at their disposal. For solar shoppers who want a black solar panel, monocrystalline and possibly thin-film are good choices. In fact, there are all-black monocrystalline solar panels on the market with a black backsheet and frame. These all-black solar modules can blend well with the roof and feature a sleek appearance.

 If efficiency is a lower priority than keeping costs down or aesthetics, thin-film or polycrystalline panels are good options. However, if it is a top priority to produce 100% of your household electricity through solar and roof space is limited, monocrystalline solar panels are a better choice because they are more efficient.

The PV industry is very dynamic, and many other developments in solar technology are on the horizon. Here’s some helpful information to learn more about future technology for homeowners interested in solar.

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