Nowadays, the market is inundated with what seems like an endless list of different types of solar panels and solar panel technologies. This long list of materials makes choosing the right panel quite complicated and confusing for your average homeowner when it doesn’t have to be.
This article will break down every different kind of solar panel currently available on the market, what new technologies are emerging, and how to choose the best solar panel type for your project.
The Most Popular Types of Solar Panels
At heart, every solar panel works in the same way – by collecting the energy emitted from the sun to power homes, businesses, and items ranging from streetlights to the calculators we used in math class.
Since the need for renewable energy is increasing every day, scientists, engineers, and manufacturers are constantly creating and testing new solar PV technologies to improve the tech and increase overall efficiency to support the adoption of solar panels. This means that homeowners are left with a long list of different types of solar modules to choose from.
While you’ll find other solar panel types on the market, most solar installation companies carry either some or all of these types of solar panels. Here’s everything you need to know about the 4 most common types of solar panels available today.
Polycrystalline solar panels
Poly solar panels are built with fragments of silicon crystals that are melted together to form a single solar cell and then outfitted into a solar panel. Visually, you can recognize polycrystalline solar panels from their speckled blue shade, and they also have very straight edges and hard corners.
Poly panels are one of the most common types of solar panels available right now since they’re one of the easiest to manufacture, leading to a lower cost overall. They are a good choice for most run-of-the-mill residential solar projects, with efficiency ratings that will ensure that a home is powered as long as the sun is shining.
However, the downside to using poly panels is that they don’t do as well in hotter temperatures, have lower efficiency than their monocrystalline counterparts overall, and are also usually a bit larger than the other types of solar panels you’ll learn about in this list.
Monocrystalline solar panels
Mono panels are built with a single silicon wafer rather than a bunch of shards melted together and combined. Because of this construction, monocrystalline panels are harder to make and come with a slightly higher price tag than their poly counterparts.
Mono panels are black and have rounded edges. They also use up less space than poly panels, making them a better choice for smaller roofs that need to use up every inch of their available solar panel installation space.
The tradeoff for the higher cost is that monocrystalline silicon panels are around 15% more efficient than poly panels. They will often last about five years longer, giving most buyers a better return on their investment than poly panels would net them while also using less space.
“PERC” stands for “Passivated Emitter and Rear Cell” or “Passivated Emitter and Rear Contact.”. PERC solar cells are different from standard solar cells in the extra layer found on the back that you won’t find on your traditional cell. This extra layer allows sunlight to be reflected into the cell, allowing for an additional opportunity to generate more power without needing more panels or space.
This extra sunlight reflection also prevents the heat generation and potentially high temperatures you’ll see with standard poly or mono cells to help maintain the panel’s temperature and increase efficiency.
While standard panels and PERC solar modules are different categories of solar panels, you can consider PERC panels as an upgrade to your traditional module rather than an entirely new type of equipment. PERC cells just have an additional layer that you won’t find on your average, run-of-the-mill solar cell but use the same materials and technology as other panels elsewhere in their build.
This also means that any facility that can manufacture mono or poly panels can quickly start manufacturing PERC varieties of their standard panels without much extra equipment or effort, making them a very accessible panel type to find.
The additional layer on a PERC cell increases the panel’s efficiency, resulting in a need for fewer panels than you would require if you were choosing a standard monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and thin-film variety. PERC panels are available in both mono, and poly versions, but monos are more common due to the high-efficiency rating this combo will provide.
Thin-Film Solar Cells (TFSC)
Thin-film solar panels are probably the most visually attractive option of the 4 main types of solar panels listed here. Built with multiple thin layers of photovoltaic materials such as copper or silicon placed on a thin membrane, these types of panels are highly affordable since the manufacturing process is straightforward. Still, the tradeoff is that they lack efficiency.
Three of the biggest pros to buying and installing thin-film solar panels are that they are one of the cheapest panels available today since they are easy to manufacture and don’t require as many materials as mono, poly, or PERC cells. They are also flexible, making them an excellent panel choice for many different use cases, and they don’t lose much of their efficiency when faced with high temperatures.
On the other side of the coin, thin-film solar panels require a lot more space than mono or poly panels to generate enough power to be worthwhile, making them a less-than-ideal choice for most residential installs.
Thin-film panels are available with the following photovoltaic material constructions:
Amorphous silicon (a-Si)
The least efficient option available, amorphous silicon panels aren’t really used for rooftop solar. Still, their cost-effectiveness makes them an excellent choice for items requiring very little power, such as pocket calculators. They are the thinnest panels available, with an average thickness of around 1 micrometer.
Copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS)
These panels have the highest efficiency rating of all the thin-film varieties – around 22% compared to crystalline silicon, making them a great, cost-effective option. Copper indium gallium selenide cells usually have a plastic or glass back. They are one of the most promising new types of panels, with new breakthroughs in efficiency consistently being made.
Cadmium telluride (CdTe)
The last thin-film panel type is cadmium telluride, one of the most eco-friendly panel types currently available. These panels require much less water to construct than other PV varieties, making them a great option for those looking to reduce their carbon footprint. However, the downside to using them is that cadmium telluride itself is toxic, making it a less attractive option for many since it’s a tricky material to dispose of or recycle.
Other Types of Solar Panels
Bifacial Solar Panels
Bifacial solar panels can come in both mono and poly variations, with the most common type being monocrystalline. However, what makes them unique is that both sides of the solar cells are exposed, allowing them to generate power from both the front and back sides of the panel.
While it may seem counterintuitive to attempt to generate electricity from the panel’s backside, it actually works quite well. This configuration enables bifacial panels to catch all the sun’s rays that reflect off the surface they’re installed on. This power would otherwise have been lost if there weren’t any additional cells on the back to capture extra solar energy.
Bifacial and PERC panels are very similar since they both utilize an additional layer to generate more electrical power than mono facial panels, but the main difference between the two lies in the materials used. PERC cells use a white sheet, while bifacial panels have glass backings.
Biohybrid Solar Cells
Biohybrid cells are still very much in the research and development phase but look very promising in terms of the future or solar technology. These cells use both organic and inorganic matter to essentially recreate the process of photosynthesis to generate solar energy with almost 100% efficiency.
While biohybrid solar cells aren’t considered photovoltaic cells by any means, they deserve a place on the list based on the fact that they use the sun to generate power rather than any other method such as hydro, wind, or gas, and they have the potential to exist in the same space/market as traditional solar PV.
Concentrated PV Cells (CVP and HCVP)
Concentrated PV cells have the highest efficiency rating of any panel on the market today, at a whopping 40%. This is achieved with an optical device like a lens or mirror installed over the panel that acts almost like a magnifying glass to concentrate the solar energy hitting multi-junction solar cells.
Unfortunately, these cells require particular conditions to hit their optimal efficiency rating, so they aren’t as common as the other types of solar panels we’ve listed here. The sun needs to hit them at a precise angle to work correctly, making them only useful if installed on solar trackers, or in the Sun Belt region of the U.S., or the Golden Banana in Southern Europe.
Concentrated PV cells must be kept cool, so heat sinks such as fans or heat pipes must be installed to ensure that the system doesn’t overheat and lose efficiency or stop working altogether. They also won’t work correctly under diffused light, as you would get on a cloudy or overcast day, so these panels haven’t seen much use in the last few years, despite their high efficiency.
Which type of solar panel is best?
The best type of solar panel for the job can vary depending on your needs and what you’re looking to get out of your solar panel system. Here are a few different scenarios to help you decide which type of solar cell might be best for you.
Wanting a high-efficiency system
People looking for a high-efficiency system understand that the upfront cost might be higher but is worth it for the return on investment, the space saved, and the increased longevity of their system.
Today, crystalline silicon solar panels are the best choice for residential and commercial solar applications. The highest efficiency system will use monocrystalline solar cells to get the job done. Not only do they have a fantastic efficiency rating, but they are also smaller than their polycrystalline counterparts enabling the buyer to be able to potentially install more panels in less space.
Someone looking for all the bells and whistles should also consider mono PERC cells since they will further improve the efficiency rating for the available space without being much more expensive than standard mono panels. This combination will cost most of all the panel options available today, but the return on investment is also the highest as well.
Wanting an affordable system
A homeowner interested in solar for the environmental benefits while also looking to save a little cash should consider a polycrystalline or thin-film panel solution. Polycrystalline panels are very much your “standard” solar panel and will definitely get the job done. They are also some of the most durable panels available today.
That said, poly panels are larger in size and less efficient than mono panels, which could cost the homeowner more in installation costs. At the same time, the low efficiency means that the return on investment will also be lower. Someone with less space should also avoid this panel type since this will further contribute to the low-efficiency problem created.
On the other hand, thin-film panels are also affordable, but they shouldn’t be used for most small residential applications. Instead, consider this panel type for commercial use where you have a large area with good sun exposure, since they aren’t very efficient, or have an application that requires something more flexible than your average hard-backed PV module.
Wanting a visually appealing system
Sometimes a person is just looking for something that works and looks good while doing so. If you recognize yourself here, this category is for you. Aesthetics are subjective, but most people would consider the sleek black look of monocrystalline panels to be the overall winner here.
Mono panels will look lovely on most roof types but sometimes have quite a bit of additional white space, which might ruin the look of the overall system. If looks are really all you care about, though, some options have black packing included to fix this issue, but they will cost you more and will sometimes be less efficient. It really all comes down to the person’s individual preferences when looking into solar.
Thin-film panels could also be an excellent choice for aesthetics since they are almost paper-thin and lie flat on the roof. They also have less wiring than other panel types meaning even less white space overall.
The only downside is that if you’re looking for a residential rooftop solution, you’ll probably have to cover the entire roof surface in panels, which isn’t the best use of space, and some might argue it doesn’t look good either.
When it comes to choosing the best type of solar panel for the job, it’s important to be aware of every kind available on the market and which might work best for each specific use case. While you can’t go wrong with a standard mono or poly panel, there are other options that might work better, get you more bang for your buck, and look cleaner up on the roof than others.
Solar installers should be staying on top of current panel options and trends to help their clients make the best choice for their home or property, and homeowners should keep an eye out for emerging technology that might perform best under the specific qualities of their roof and location.
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