In the United States, solar power now exists everywhere you look. Recent estimates suggest that the solar power capacity in the United States is almost 100 GW.
This is able to power almost 20 million American homes. Considering that there are only 320 million Americans approximately, this is a relatively large number.
The reality is that there are many different types of solar panels available. The type of residential solar panel you want for your home may be different from the professional solar panel that you use for your business.
In this article, we will walk you through everything you need to know about the solar industry and its offerings. We’ll explain how to find the best solar panels for you as a smart homeowner.
What Are the Main Types of Solar Panels?
While a variety of different types of solar panels exist, generally they fall into three main categories. These are monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and thin-film. Each has its own set of pros and cons, depending on the end-use.
The factors that go into making the buying decision between these three options are going to be specific to your home or business property. Depending on what you want out of your system, you may choose one over the other.
Monocrystalline panels have very high efficiency and are generally high performing. However, they come at a greater cost.
Polycrystalline panels will have a lower relative cost. However, naturally, they will also have lower efficiency and overall performance.
Finally, thin-film solar panels are more flexible and can be portable depending on their use. Compared to monocrystalline panels, thin-film panels have relatively lower efficiency.
What are the different types of solar panels made out of? Silicon is the primary semiconductor material that’s used in different types of solar panels.
However, the reality is that the organization of this silicon can vary. This variation is what determines the differences between different types of solar panels. Here is a walk-through of the primary differences between the three.
Crystalline Solar Panels
Monocrystalline and polycrystalline solar panels are base sheets of silicon. These sheets become a distributed network of many different silicon cells.
When you choose a monocrystalline or a polycrystalline panel, you are purchasing a set of silicon cells placed together as a wafer. These wafers are ultimately assembled together into a square shape that is then covered with a glass sheet and placed onto a frame.
There are some differences in the composition of the silicon between the two. Monocrystalline panels get their name because they are cut out of one piece of crystal.
However, polycrystalline panels are placed together as a composition of fragments. These fragments come from different silicon crystals that melted together into the same position via a mold. Then the mold is cut into wafers that are used to be placed onto the frame.
Thin-Film Solar Panels
Thin-film solar panels are actually made from other materials in addition to silicon. Most commonly, these panels employ cadmium telluride. The way manufacturers produce thin-film panels is by placing a layer of cadmium telluride in between conducting layers.
These layers are transparent to help capture energy from the sun. Usually, there is another layer of glass protection on top to prevent damage. It’s also possible to find a thin-film panel built out of amorphous silicon.
Amorphous silicon is closer in composition to monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels. However, the difference is that amorphous silicon is not composed of pure, solid silicon wafers.
Instead, it is silicon that’s presented in a noncrystalline shape. It’s placed directly on top of back sheet material like plastic, metal, or glass.
Are the Appearances Different Between Different Types of Solar Panels?
You have likely seen one or more different types of solar panels in your travels. It’s true that depending on the shape and structure of the panel, you can allow for a wide variety of differences in appearance. For example, monocrystalline solar panels are usually presented onto a frame with black cells.
The black is produced when the light strikes the crystal that is made of pure silicon. Usually, the cells are black, however, the background sheet and frame can be a variety of different colors. It’s possible to purchase a back sheet for a monocrystalline solar panel that is another color like silver or black.
Alternatively, metal frames typically employ a silver or black scheme.
Polycrystalline solar panels are also dark, however, it is more of a bluish dark appearance rather than black. Once again, this relates to the physics of how light strikes the reorganized silicon fragments.
Polycrystalline panels also can have different colors for their back sheets and frames. The difference is that the back sheets are usually silver or white.
Thin-film solar panels can also have a variety of different colors depending on the material that comprises the panel. For example, a reorganized amorphous silicon panel will look different from a cadmium telluride panel.
Overall, these panels are far thinner than the other types of wafers discussed. Specifically, a thin-film panel can be almost 400 times thinner than traditional panels.
However, depending on the frame and protection mechanism thickness, it can be equally thick in overall appearance. Many of these panels will stick onto the surface of a roof and have a lower profile to minimize the overall effect on the appearance.
What Are the Differences in Power and Efficiency?
This is one of the most important questions when comparing the three types of panels. Overall, monocrystalline panels usually have the best efficiency. They can be higher than 20% efficient, which is an industry best standard.
Polycrystalline solar panels usually aren’t far behind, with an efficiency of approximately 15 to 18%.
A monocrystalline panel is also able to generate better power. This is which will be reflected in its final power rating.
It’s possible to find a monocrystalline solar panel with a power rating of over 400 W. Most monocrystalline panels clock in at 300+ W.
A polycrystalline solar panel on the other hand will most likely have a significantly lower wattage and overall power rating. It’s important to note that size does not matter between the two.
Both major types of solar panels usually come with approximately 60 silicon cells. However, it’s possible to find variations of these solar panels that include 72 up to 96 cells. Usually, these are for large-scale industrial organizations.
A thin-film solar panel will usually have much lower efficiency. It will also have a lower power rating compared to monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels. The efficiencies in a thin-film panel are usually closer to 10 to 11%.
In contrast to the prior discussion, Thin-film solar panels don’t have a uniform variant in terms of the number of cells. There are standardized sets of 60, 72, and 96 cells.
This means that you have to really scrutinize the specific type of panel you’re looking at. The overall power output for the cost will depend on its physical size.
However, in comparison to monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels, a thin-film panel will usually have a lower power capacity for the same amount of area.
What Is the Cost of Each of These Options?
As mentioned above, monocrystalline solar panels are always the highest-cost option. The reason for this is that these solar panels go through a more sophisticated process during manufacturing.
Remember that the cells and wafers come out of a single crystal. It is more expensive for manufacturers to create crystals acceptable for use.
There is a specific process that has become an industry standard amongst manufacturers. However, it uses a lot of energy and it is inefficient as a manufacturing system. This leads to additional buildout costs for the manufacturer they get transferred onto the consumer.
Polycrystalline solar panels are somewhere in between monocrystalline and thin-film solar panels in terms of cost. They employ many different types of silicon fragments.
This makes the manufacturing process far more efficient. Ultimately, this leads to a better bottom line for manufacturers with lower costs to the consumer.
Finally, thin-film solar panels vary widely in cost depending on the material, size, and cell number used. Usually, a cadmium telluride panel is the cheapest panel for manufacturers to create.
However, despite the fact that the cost could be higher or lower, usually the installation of a thin-film panel is far lower. They are lighter weight, more flexible, and more maneuverable.
It’s safer and easier for installing companies to transport these panels and secure them onto a rooftop or other area safely. Lower labor costs also factor into the overall cost of a solar panel installation process.
What Else Should You Think About When Deciding Between One of These Three Options?
Other important factors to consider include temperature, fire rating, hail rating, hurricane rating, and light-induced degradation.
The overall temperature that a solar panel gets up to can help determine its ability to create sustainable energy.
This metric is measured in the temperature coefficient. The temperature coefficient is a way to look at how much decrease in power takes place for every degree Celsius that increases over 25°.
Usually, a monocrystalline or polycrystalline panel will have a worse temperature coefficient. This means that thin-film panels can be better options in hotter environments with more sunlight annually.
A major piece of building legislation that came out in 2012 requires that solar panels match the fire rating of the roof where they are to be installed. The aim of this legislation was to ensure that solar panel installation did not continue to fan the flames of a fire if one should occur.
There are several degrees of variation in the fire rating of a solar panel system. They are designated class A, class B, and class C. It’s best to discuss your specific needs with your solar installer before deciding which is right for you.
Solar panel manufacturers also test their panels for hail impacts. Once again, legislation dictates that solar panels need to be able to withstand common hailstorms and other ice balls.
Amazingly, the way this is tested is by using a pneumatic cannon to simulate the force of a piece of hail striking the panel. Usually, a crystalline panel will be able to have a better hail rating because of its thicker dimensions. They can often tolerate hailstorms with speeds up to approximately 50 mph.
Hurricane ratings are different. There is no official legislation demanding that a certain requirement be met. However, recommendations exist for certain regions with guidance from the Department Of Energy.
The last thing you want is to pay money upfront for a solar panel and have it destroyed by a storm. There are many ways to protect your panel to ensure this doesn’t happen.
Finally, light-induced degradation is a decrease in the overall performance of crystalline panels. This happens daily during the first hours of sunlight. This is a physical limitation of silicon because of its lattice structure. The amount of loss of energy is directly tied to manufacturing quality, and it is approximately 1 to 3%.
Understanding Different Types of Solar Panels
At the end of the day, there are significant variations in the types of solar panels available. Monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and thin-film panels all vary in terms of their efficiency and power ratings per cost. It’s best to discuss your situation with a local solar installer before making plans to take your home or business solar.
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