Most of the currently available solar panel options fit one of three types: monocrystalline, polycrystalline (also known as multicrystalline) and thin film. These solar panels vary in how they are made, their appearance, their performance, their cost, and the installations for which each is best suited.
Depending on the type of setup you are considering, one option may be more appropriate than the other.
Major types of solar panels
There are three main types of solar panels: monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and thin-film. Each type has its own advantages and disadvantages, and the type of solar panel best suited for your installation will depend on factors specific to your particular property and desired system features.
Below, we’ll explore some common questions and concerns about solar panels and how different types of panels have different characteristics.
What are different solar panels made of?
To generate electricity, solar cells are made of a semiconductor material that converts light into electricity. The most common material used as a semiconductor in the solar cell manufacturing process is silicon.
Monocrystalline and Polycrystalline Solar Panels
Both monocrystalline and polycrystalline solar panels have cells made of silicon wafers. To create a monocrystalline or polycrystalline panel, the wafers are joined in rows and columns to form a rectangle, covered with a sheet of glass and framed together.
While both such solar panels have cells made of silicon, monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels differ in the composition of silicon itself. Monocrystalline solar cells are cut from a single, pure silicon crystal. Alternatively, polycrystalline solar cells consist of pieces of silicon crystals that are melted together in a mold before being cut into wafers.
Thin Film Solar Panels
Unlike monocrystalline and polycrystalline solar panels, thin-film panels are made from a variety of materials. The most common type of thin-film solar panel is made from cadmium telluride (CdTe). To make this type of thin-film panel, manufacturers place a layer of CdTe between the transparent conductive layers that help capture sunlight. This type of thin film technology also has a glass layer on top for protection.
Thin-film solar panels can also be made of amorphous silicon (a-Si), which is similar in composition to monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels. These thin-film panels do not consist of solid silicon wafers, although they use silicon in their composition. Rather, they consist of non-crystalline silicon placed on glass, plastic or metal.
Finally, Copper Indium Gallium Selenide (CIGS) panels are another popular type of thin film technology. CIGS panels have all four elements sandwiched between two conductive layers (i.e. glass, plastic, aluminum or steel) and electrodes are placed in front of and behind the material to capture electrical currents.
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What do the different types of solar panels look like?
Differences in materials and manufacturing result in differences in appearance between each type of solar panel:
Monocrystalline Solar Panels
If you see a black cell solar panel, it’s most likely a monocrystalline panel. These cells appear black due to the interaction of light with the pure silicon crystal.
While the solar cells themselves are black, monocrystalline solar panels come in a variety of colors for their backplates and frames. The backing layer of the solar panel is mostly black, silver or white, while the metal frames are typically black or silver.
Polycrystalline Solar Panels
Unlike monocrystalline solar cells, polycrystalline solar cells tend to have a bluish tint to them due to light reflecting the silicon particles in the cell differently than a pure monocrystalline silicon sheet.
Similar to monocrystalline, polycrystalline panels have different colors for backing sheets and frames. Most often, the frames of the polycrystalline panels are silver and the backing layers are either silver or white.
Thin-film Solar Panels
The biggest differentiating aesthetic factor when it comes to thin-film solar panels is how thin and low-profile the technology is. As the name suggests, thin-film panels are generally thinner than other panel types. This is because the cells inside the panels are about 350 times thinner than the crystal plates used in monocrystalline and polycrystalline solar panels.
It’s important to keep in mind that while thin-film cells themselves can be much thinner than conventional solar cells, if the entire thin-film panel contains a thick frame, it can be similar in thickness to a monocrystalline or polycrystalline solar panel. There are adhesive thin-film solar panels that fit as close to the surface of a roof as possible, but there are more durable thin-film panels with frames up to 50 millimeters thick.
When it comes to color, thin-film solar panels are great for what they do.
It can be both blue and black tones.
What are bi-surface solar panels?
Bifacial solar panels can capture sunlight from both the front and back of the panel, thus generating more electricity than conventional solar panels of comparable size. Many bifacial solar panels will have a transparent back sheet so that sunlight can pass through the panel, reflect off the ground surface, and reflect upwards towards the solar cells on the back of the panel. These solar panels are typically produced with monocrystalline solar cells, but polycrystalline bi-surface solar panels are also available.
Solar panel power and efficiency values
Each type of solar panel differs in the amount of power it can produce.
Monocrystalline and polycrystalline solar panels
Among all panel types, monocrystalline typically has the highest efficiency and power capability. Monocrystalline solar panels can achieve efficiencies greater than 20 percent, while polycrystalline solar panels typically have efficiencies between 15 and 17 percent.
Monocrystalline solar panels tend to generate more power than other types of panels, not only because of their efficiency, but also because they have higher wattage modules. Most monocrystalline solar panels are capable of more than 300 watts (W), with some currently even exceeding 400 W. Polycrystalline solar panels, on the other hand, tend to have lower wattage.
That doesn’t mean that monocrystalline and polycrystalline solar panels aren’t physically the same size – in fact, both types of solar panels tend to come with 60 silicon cells in 72 or 96 cell variants (usually for large-scale installations). But even with the same number of cells, monocrystalline panels are capable of generating more electricity.
Thin-film solar panels tend to have lower efficiency and power capacities than the monocrystalline or polycrystalline varieties. Efficiency will vary depending on the particular material used in the cells, but they usually have efficiencies close to 11 percent.
Unlike monocrystalline and polycrystalline solar panels, which come in standardized 60, 72 and 96 cell variants, thin film technology does not come in uniform sizes. Therefore, the power capacity from one thin-film panel to the next will largely depend on its physical size. Generally speaking, the power capacity per square foot of a monocrystalline or polycrystalline solar panel will exceed thin-film panel technology.
Does any solar panel have more than 96 cells?
While not as common as 60, 72, or 96-cell panels, some solar panel manufacturers produce solar panels with half-cut cells, essentially doubling the number of solar cells in the panel. Half-cut solar cells are monocrystalline or polycrystalline solar cells that have been cut in half using a laser cutter. By splitting solar cells in half, solar panels can achieve marginal gains in efficiency and durability.
Different types of solar panels have varying costs
Manufacturing processes differ between monocrystalline, polycrystalline and thin film; therefore, each type of panel comes with a different price tag.
Monocrystalline solar panels
Of all the solar panel types, monocrystalline panels will likely be the most expensive option. This is largely due to the manufacturing process – since solar cells are made from a single silicon crystal, manufacturers have to bear the costs of creating these crystals. This process, known as the Czochralski process, results in energy-dense and wasted silicon (which can then be used to produce polycrystalline solar cells).
polycrystalline solar panels
Polycrystalline solar panels are typically less expensive than monocrystalline solar panels. This is because cells are made from pieces of silicon rather than a single, pure silicon crystal. This allows for a much simpler cell manufacturing process, thus less costly to manufacturers and ultimately to end users.
What you pay for thin-film solar panels will largely depend on the type of thin-film panel; CdTe is generally the least expensive type of solar panel to manufacture, while CIGS solar panels are much more expensive than both CdTe and amorphous silicon.
Regardless of the cost of the panel, the total cost of installing a thin-film solar panel may be lower than installing a monocrystalline or polycrystalline solar panel system due to additional labor requirements. Thin-film solar panel installations are less labor-intensive because they are lighter and more maneuverable, making it easier for installers to move the panels to roofs and fix them in place. This means lower labor costs, which can help contribute to a cheaper solar installation overall.
Best Pa for Your Setup flue type
When choosing the type of solar panel you want for your system, much of your decision will depend on the characteristics of your property and situation. Monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and thin-film panels each have their own advantages and disadvantages, and the solution you should go for depends on your property and your goals for the solar project. Property owners with ample space for solar panels can save upfront by installing lower efficiency, lower cost polycrystalline panels. If your available space is limited and you want to maximize your electricity bill savings, you can do so by installing high-efficiency, monocrystalline solar panels. When it comes to thin-film panels, it’s most common to choose this type of solar panel if you’re mounting on a large, commercial roof that can’t handle the added weight of traditional solar equipment. Such roofs can also achieve lower efficiencies of thin-film panels because they have more room to accommodate them. In addition, thin-film panels can sometimes be a useful solution for portable solar systems such as caravans or boats.