Types of Solar Panels: The Complete Guide

• Updated on September 22, 2022 • [rt_reading_time postfix=”minute”] read

There are three types of solar panels on the market today. If you’re looking to invest in a solar system, no doubt one of the biggest questions you’re asking is: “What type of solar panel should I get?”

In this article, we’ll compare the different types of solar panels you can choose from, outlining the pros and cons of each.

Table of Contents

How Solar Panels Work

Solar panels collect energy from the sun and convert it into electricity through a process known as the photovoltaic effect. This is why solar panels are also known as photovoltaic or PV panels.

Traditional solar panels consist of a series of silicon wafers, or solar cells, that are assembled into rows and columns. Conventional panels, which also include layers of boron and phosphorus, are rectangular in shape and come in standard sizes of 60, 72, and 96 cells. Thin film solar panels consist of a photovoltaic substance that’s most commonly applied to glass.

Three Types of Solar Panels

There are three types of solar panels used by the solar industry today – monocrystalline panels, polycrystalline panels, and thin film panels. While all three generate electricity, they do so in slightly different ways due to differences in their manufacturing process.

Monocrystalline Solar Panels

Monocrystalline solar cells are made from a single pure crystal of silicon that’s inserted into molten silicon and slowly extracted. The molten silicon hardens into a crystal shell called an ingot which is then sliced into thin individual solar cells. Multiple cells are used to create a panel – the greater the number of cells, the larger the panel.

The manufacturing process for monocrystalline cells is extremely energy intensive and results in a lot of silicon waste (as much as 50%). Much of that waste can be recycled for use in the manufacturing of polycrystalline solar panels.

Monocrystalline solar cells look black thanks to the way that sunlight interacts with the pure silicon crystal. They are square and when assembled into a panel, there are gaps in between them. Panels typically have a black, silver, or white back sheet and they’re mounted in a black or silver metal frame.

Polycrystalline Solar Panels

Polycrystalline solar cells are also made from silicon, but rather than using a single crystal, they use silicon crystal fragments. This is a more efficient, simpler cell manufacturing process.

In essence, silicon crystal fragments are melted together and put into molten silicon. Rather than extracting the crystals as is done in the monocrystalline process, the molten silicon is left to cool in a square mold. The hardened silicon is then cut into thin solar wafers, which are assembled into a solar panel. There is minimal waste generated during this production process.

Polycrystalline solar panels look blue due to way the sun interacts with the fragmented silicon. The cells are square and when assembled into a panel, there are no gaps in between them like is found in monocrystalline panels. Back sheets are typically silver or white and the panel frames are most often silver.

Because of the manufacturing process, there can be a lot of variability in the look of one panel to the next, and many think they are the least visually appealing of all the types of solar panels.

Thin Film Solar Panels

The third type of solar panels on the market, thin film panels, are flexible solar panels with a much lower profile than conventional silicon wafer styles – they’re roughly 350 times thinner than crystalline wafers.

Thin film panels can be made from different materials. Most commonly, cadmium telluride (CdTe) is set between thin sheets of conductive material with a layer of glass on top for protection. Thin film panels can also be made with copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) or amorphous silicon (a-Si) in place of the cadmium telluride.

While the thin film cells are not as thick as crystalline solar cells, both installations may ultimately wind up with a similar thickness depending on how the thin cells are framed. More durable thin film panels may have frames as thick as 50 millimeters. If you need something with a lower profile, there are adhesive thin film panels that can lie flat against the roof, giving a seamless appearance.

Other Types of Solar Panels

Advancements in solar technology have lead to the introduction of new types of solar panels in recent years.

Bifacial solar panels are a type of monocrystalline panel that you could consider. As the name suggests, bifacial panels can collect sunlight from both the front and the back of the panel. The back or underside typically has a transparent back sheet that allows the panel capture sunlight that’s reflected off the ground; this means that bifacial panels can generate more electricity than conventional monocrystalline solar panels.

Passivated Emitter and Rear Cell (PERC) panels are the next generation of conventional monocrystalline cells. This new technology adds another layer near the rear of the panel that enhances efficiency by as much as 5%. This allows the system to generate more electricity in a smaller footprint than traditional panels.

Selecting the Right Solar Panels for Your Business

So, now that we’ve covered the different solar panel types, let’s talk about how you figure out which one is right for your situation. The type of solar panel you choose will be dictated by the needs of your business and a few other factors.

Here are some things you should consider:

Use and Size

The first thing any good solar energy partner will want to know is why you’re looking to invest in a solar array. How are you going to use the clean, renewable energy your solar panel system will generate? Perhaps you’re looking to cut your energy bills. Maybe you need resilience to power critical operations in case of a grid outage. You might be trying to reduce your carbon footprint. Odds are, it’s a combination of these factors that are driving your investigation into solar.

Then, they’re going to ask you questions that will help determine how much energy you need and where your solar system should be located. Do you need to run the entire business off your panels or just critical systems? Do you have ample space on your roof? Will you be installing solar panels on carports? Do you have open land on which you can erect a solar array?

Your energy goals, power needs and the amount of space you can dedicate to your solar array will all impact the type of solar panels you buy. Once you know the answers to those questions, your solar provider can start to design your system and help you select the best solar panels for your situation.

Efficiency and Power Output

One of the key factors in selecting solar panels for your business will be how much energy you need to generate. To ensure that your solar panels can meet your energy goals, you need to understand both their efficiency and power capacity. In short, the greater the efficiency and higher the power capacity, the more electricity a solar panel will generate.

Efficiency

Efficiency is the measurement of how much of the sun’s energy can be converted into electricity by the solar panels. For example, if a solar panel has 20% efficiency, that means that 20% of the light that hits the panel will be turned into electricity.

If you set up mono and polycrystalline panels side by side, you’ll find that monocrystalline solar panels achieve around 20 to 23% efficiency, while polycrystalline panels can achieve 15 to 17%. This has to do with the difference in silicon purity – the purer the silicon, the easier it is for electrons to flow through the cell, making it more efficient.

Thin film solar panels are the least efficient type of panel on the market. There is little standardization in terms of solar panel size, which leads to a wider efficiency range (6 to 15%) than is found with mono and polycrystalline panels. CIGS panels are the most efficient thin film panels with a range of 13 to 15%. Those made with CdTe range between 9 to 11% efficiency and amorphous silicon panels deliver around 6 to 8%.

Power Capacities

The next factor to consider is power capacity, or the maximum amount of electricity the panel can produce under ideal circumstances.

Monocrystalline solar panels typically provide 300 to 550 watts of power each, while polycrystalline panels have historically delivered lower wattages. Advancements in technology are narrowing the gap and some newer, split-cell, polycrystalline solar panels can now produce between 400 to 500 watts, though it’s important to note that the capacity per cell of a monocrystalline solar panel is still higher than polycrystalline.

The power capacity of thin film panels is determined by the panel’s size as well as the type of material used in construction. As noted above, there is little standardization in thin film panel size, but all things being equal, they can’t produce the same amount of power as conventional crystalline panels.

Because they are less efficient and offer less capacity per square foot than mono or polycrystalline, thin film solar panels are typically only used for commercial applications in very specific situations, like if the roof can’t support the weight of conventional panels.

Cost

When it come to the price tag, thin film solar panels have the lowest initial investment because they are the cheapest to manufacture, and are less efficient. They’re also lighter and more maneuverable, which typically results in lower installation costs. The cost of the thin film panels themselves largely depends on the material used, with cadmium telluride (CdTe) being the cheapest and CIGS being the most expensive. It’s also important to note that CdTe panels are more expensive to recycle at the end of their life due to the toxic nature of the cadmium. These panels also tend to experience more breakage in shipping and installation due to the lack of a rigid frame and being all-glass.

Monocrystalline solar panels are typically the most expensive option on the market today, due primarily to the costs associated with manufacturing. The price tag for polycrystalline panels tend to land somewhere in between monocrystalline and thin film. The global supply chain for Monocrystalline solar panels and Polycrystalline solar panels has been heavily impacted by trade tariffs and COVID-19 disruptions. It is anticipated that pricing and supply will settle down in early 2023.

It’s more than just cost per panel

When selecting solar panels, you need to consider more than just the price per panel. Your solar provider should help you evaluate your investment costs and ROI holistically, including the impact of efficiency, power capacity, and the price of the actual solar panel.

You want to work with a provider that can run the numbers to see if the efficiency and power capacity gains from monocrystalline panels will allow you to invest less upfront capital in more expensive panels than you would need to invest in a comparably sized polycrystalline system that requires more panels to make up for the lower efficiency of the system.

They’ll also include in the calculation costs related to installing, monitoring, and maintaining your solar panels.

Location

Where your solar panel system will live is another key consideration when designing the array.

Large roofs or businesses with large plots of lands for a solar field might opt for polycrystalline solar panels. While they are less efficient than monocrystalline, they are cheaper and if you have the space to erect a larger array, this path may save you on upfront investment costs. If the footprint of your solar array must be smaller, then monocrystalline solar panels will likely be the best option to maximize power generation.

Location is yet another data point in the cost analysis. If your commercial building is older, or will require a significant amount of retrofitting to be able to support the weight of a traditional solar system, you may want to consider thin film solar panels. These are ideal with thin roofs (like some metal roofs) or in tight spaces that would make installation of conventional crystalline panels more labor intensive.

As noted earlier, thin film panels are less efficient, but they’re cheaper and significantly lighter in weight. If you have the rooftop space, it may be more cost-effective to install more thin film panels then it would be to reinforce the roof to support a more efficient, smaller mono or polycrystalline solar array.

Other Factors

Temperature

Temperature coefficient is another important consideration when selecting solar panels, especially if your business is located in southern state. Temperature coefficient measures the decrease in power output for every 1ºC the panel gets above 25˚C. More simply put, as temperatures rise, the amount of power capacity a solar panel has decreases – depending on the technology.

Monocrystalline cells tend to have higher heat tolerance than polycrystalline cells, making them more efficient in warmer climates. The temperature coefficient of thin film panels is significantly better than crystalline solar panels.

Hail Rating

Panels also have hail ratings, which should be considered if you’re in a region prone to hailstorms. Monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels are typically rated to withstand 25 millimeter diameter hail falling at 50 miles per hour. The flexible thin film panels have a lower hail rating due to the nature of their construction.

Fire Rating

Solar panels must match the fire rating of the roof on which they’re installed. There are three classes of fire rating (class A, B, and C), all of which are designed to ensure the solar panels don’t accelerate the spread of a fire.

The Bottom Line

Some solar installers may try to sell you a one-size-fits-all package, but you likely won’t be happy with that in the long run. Each type of solar panel technology has its pros and cons and you want to work with a provider that will design a system and select all of its components based on what’s right for your situation.