Complete Guide to the Different Kinds of Solar Panels

Installing a solar panel system can be a steep investment. On average, an American homeowner can expect to pay $5,000-$20,000 for a complete solar panel installation. While government and state incentive programs can help offset this high price, homeowners should still expect to shell out a hefty sum for lower electricity bills. Thankfully, plenty of options allow for a more affordable entry into solar.

From the more economical polycrystalline panels to the high-end, sleek, dark-colored monocrystalline cells, there is a solar panel option for every price range imaginable. With that in mind, we created this comprehensive guide to the different solar panels to help you find the best ones for your home and budget.

What is a Solar Panel?

Solar panels are devices designed to collect solar energy and convert it into usable electricity. The standard solar panel sandwiches two semiconductive materials, typically silicon, between a housing, such as metal or glass. As light rays, or photons, pass through the semiconductive material, they knock electrons free from the atoms, generating a small electrical current. This current is then captured and sent to your home, used as power, or sent to a solar battery and stored for later use.

A Brief History of Solar Panels

This process of knocking electrons free to generate a current is called the photovoltaic effect. It was first observed in 1839 by a French scientist named Edmond Becquerel. Later in 1883, another scientist named Charles Fritts developed the first solar cell. Afterward, scientists from Russia to America began experimenting with solar-capturing technology. Modern solar panels date back to the 1950s when the scientists at Bell Labs discovered that silicon was a much more efficient semiconductor than selenium, the most common material used in solar panels until that point. Since then, solar panels have seen continuous improvement, with skyrocketing innovation.

The Main Types of Solar Panels

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Solar panel technology has evolved to the point where it’s accessible to many Americans, as up until the mid-2010s, it was too expensive. In fact, today, a large variety of more affordable panel options exist. Each panel type has advantages, disadvantages, costs, and requirements you should consider before choosing.

Monocrystalline Solar Panels

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Monocrystalline solar cells (also called modules) are the cream of the crop in solar technology. They’re composed of a single sheet of monocrystalline silicon crystal and formed through an expensive manufacturing process called the Czochralski process (invented in 1916 by Jan Czochralski). These panels are forged from a single ingot of pure silicon cut and crafted in 32 to 96 silicon wafers. These wafers are then assembled into panels. Since these cells are cut from a single crystal, a large amount of silicon is lost (up to 50% in some cases), making the process inefficient and costly.

These crystalline panels are dark black, have higher efficiency, higher wattage, last longer, and are the most expensive on the market. These panels capture about 19% to 20% of incoming photons, making them one of the most efficient options. There are different types of monocrystalline panels to choose from, such as Passivated Emitter and Rear Cell Panels (PERC panels) and Bifacial Panels.

Passivated Emitter and Rear Cell Panels

Passivated Emitter and Rear Cell Panels are a general improvement on the monocrystalline panel technology. They add an additional layer of reflective material to the back of the panel, allowing the silicon to capture more photons while having several smaller benefits, like reducing electron recombination and heat. PERC cells are slightly more efficient and last longer than standard panels, absorbing 21% to 23% of incoming photons.

Heterojunction Solar Cells

Heterojunction cells combine two solar panel technologies to increase efficiency. These solar panels work by adding a layer of amorphous silicon that absorbs more wavelengths and works together with the crystalline silicon to increase efficiency. These cells must be specially made by adapting current solar cells with amorphous silicon, making them extremely expensive. However, the extra cost comes with a significant efficiency boost, as they absorb between 23% to 26% of incoming photons.

Bifacial Panels

These panels are an interesting case as they’re more efficient than standard monocrystalline panels but require a little more work. Bifacial panels function, as their name suggests, by having two solar-absorbing faces. The second face is positioned on the back of the panel, which absorbs reflected light that would otherwise be wasted. Unfortunately, these are useless when installed flat on any surface, like on a roof. The only way for a homeowner to take advantage of these types of panels is to have a section of their property that is cordoned off and have these panels installed on the ground. If homeowners are able to make these panels work, it’s typically worth it, as these panels have been known to have an efficiency as high as 27%. While the most efficient bifacial panels are of a monocrystalline type, polycrystalline bifacial panels also exist but are less common.

Polycrystalline Solar Panels

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A more economical way to harness solar power is with polycrystalline solar cells, also called “multi-crystalline” panels. Unlike monocrystalline, these solar cells are composed of multiple shards of silicon fragments, which are melted down and poured into small square wafer molds. These wafers are combined into square panels with a dark blue, speckled color.

Little silicon is wasted in the process, and these panels are much easier and cheaper to make, resulting in a far lower price tag. However, these silicon solar cells don’t last as long and have a lower heat tolerance, making them unsuitable for extremely hot climates. They also have a lower efficiency rating, only drawing in between 13% and 17% of photons that pass through them.

Thin-Film Solar Panels

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“Thin-film solar cells” is an umbrella term that describes several types of solar panels. These panels are typically thin, malleable, inexpensive, and used in industrial or commercial applications. While less common, some homes also use thin-film solar panels, but only if the roof is of a bizarre shape or is old and cannot support the weight of standard panels. Thin-film solar panels also have a low energy efficiency rating, ranging from 7% to 18%, depending on the specific kind of panel and its materials.

Cadmium Telluride (CdTe) Panels

Cadmium telluride is the most common thin-film panel on the market, making up 5% of solar panel sales. These panels can reach an efficiency rating comparable to polycrystalline panels, ranging from 9% to 15%. They are composed of cheaper materials such as cadmium telluride, cadmium sulfide, or magnesium sulfide. Unfortunately, these low-cost materials are also toxic pollutants that, if improperly disposed of, can be dangerous to the environment and human health.

Amorphous Silicon (A-Si) Panels

Amorphous silicon panels use similar technology as standard silicon panels but with a malleable twist. Instead of crystalline silicon wafers, these panels use a thin strip of silicon with a texture similar to rubber. These panels are extremely lightweight, versatile, non-toxic, and cheap but are low-efficiency. These panels have an efficiency rating of about 7%, making them a poor choice for homes. However, they still find a widespread application in commercial projects and objects with low power requirements, like solar-powered calculators and rovers.

Copper Indium Gallium Selenide (CIGS) Panels

These are the most efficient thin-film panels on the market. They’re composed of copper, gallium, indium, and selenide placed on top of a base of steel, glass, plastic, or other, more rigid materials. While not as malleable as amorphous silicon, these panels are still bendable and can fit into locations standard panels cannot, making them a popular choice for homes with odd-shaped roofs. These are the types of solar cells present in solar shingles and similar rooftop solar technology. They also have a high enough efficiency rating to warrant residential use, seeing common ranges of 12% to 15% but hitting numbers as high as 20% in lab conditions.

Which Type of Solar Panel Has the Highest Efficiency?

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When people rate and compare solar panels online, the term “efficiency” comes up a lot. Solar panel efficiency describes the amount of light, specifically photons, that the solar panels convert into usable electricity. If a solar panel has an efficiency of 20% (as most modern solar panels do), it will convert 20% of the light that makes contact with it to power for your home to use.

When comparing the pure efficiency of solar panels, monocrystalline typically comes out on top, especially when you get into the more high-end variants. But, the higher cost is typically not worth the few percentage points of increased efficiency for most homeowners. Generally, most American households can get by on panels with an efficiency of around 20%. Areas with fewer sun hours, or a long winter, may want to aim for high-efficiency panels rated at or above 20% or purchase lower-efficiency panels to compensate.

Here is a quick overview of all the efficiency levels of solar panels.

Panel Type  Efficiency Range
Monocrystalline Panels 15%-24%
Passivated Emitter and Rear Cell Panels 21%-23%
Heterojunction Cell Panels 23%-26+%
Bifacial Panels Up to 27%
Polycrystalline Panels 13%-17%
Thin-film Panels 7%-18%
Cadmium Telluride Panels 9%-15%
Amorphous Silicon Panels 7%
Copper Indium Gallium Selenide Panels 12%-15%

Which Type of Solar Panel is the Most Expensive?

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For the last decade, solar panels have been steadily lowering in price as technology advances, and panels become easier to produce. However, many types of solar panels and brands still carry a hefty price tag. Thankfully, there are federal and state incentive programs to help offset the high upfront cost.

Solar panels are priced by the total watt capacity of each panel, and your solar photovoltaic (PV) system’s total cost will equal the combined cost of each panel in watts, plus installation fees. These prices vary wildly depending on the solar company you choose to work with and your state. The following table provides the average national cost of solar panels by watt, the total cost of solar panels (materials only), and then the total installation cost of the solar power system. We always recommend scheduling an appointment with a solar industry professional and receiving a quote. While this data can help you estimate the costs, a professional quote will provide:

  • Concrete prices
  • Warranty information
  • Information on your houses specific needs
  • Panel options for your home
Panel Type  Cost Per Watt Estimated Cost of Panels Estimated Installation Cost
Monocrystalline Panels $1.00 to $1.50 $6,000 to $9,000 $18,000 to $27,000
Passivated Emitter and Rear Cell Panels $.32 to $.65 $2,100 to $3,500 $6,300 to $10,500
Heterojunction Cell Panels $1.30 to $1.50 $7,800 to $9,000 $23,000 to $27,000
Bifacial Panels Up to an additional 10 to 20 cents per watt Varies based on baseline panel Varies based on baseline panel
Polycrystalline Panels $.90 to $1.00 $5,400 to $6,000 $16,200 to $18,000
Thin-film Panels $0.70 to $1.00 $4,200 to $6,000 $12,900 to $18,000
Cadmium Telluride Panels $.50 to $.60 $2,500 to $3,000 $7,000 to $9,000
Amorphous Silicon Panels $.43 to $.50 $2,300 to $2,500 $3,500 to $7,000
Copper Indium Gallium Selenide Panels $.60 to $.70 $3,000 to $4,000 $9,000 to $12,000

Which Type of Solar Panel Has the Highest Capacity?

Alongside efficiency, solar panel capacity, also called power capacity, is a key factor in a solar panel’s ability to output electricity. A solar panel’s capacity is the total amount of power it can produce, measured in watts. The higher a solar panel’s capacity, the more electricity it can generate in ideal conditions. Here is a quick rundown of the capacity levels of each type of solar panel:

Panel Type Capacity in Watts (Assuming the Panel is 60 Cells)
Monocrystalline Panels 310 to 350
Bifacial Panels Add 10% to 20% to the wattage on any solar panel with bifacial panel
Polycrystalline Panels 250 to 300 watts
Thin-film Panels 250 to 400 watts
Cadmium Telluride Panels 110 to 400 watts
Amorphous Silicon Panels 45 to 60 watts per 2.5 by 5-foot strip
Copper Indium Gallium Selenide Panels 250 to 350 watts

Which Type of Solar Panel Lasts the Longest?

The final factor you should consider when purchasing a solar power system is its expected life span. While most solar panels will last well over two decades — or even three — not all are so durable. Here is how long you can expect your solar panels to last under ideal operating conditions:

Panel Type  Life Expectancy Given Ideal Conditions
Monocrystalline Panels 25 to 40 years
Passivated Emitter and Rear Cell Panels 25 to 30 years
Heterojunction Cell Panels 30 to 40 years
Bifacial Panels Variable, but typically 25 to 40 years
Polycrystalline Panels 25 to 35 years
Thin-film Panels 10 to 20 years
Cadmium Telluride Panels 25 to 30 years
Amorphous Silicon Panels Up to 10 years
Copper Indium Gallium Selenide Panels 20 to 30 years

Remember that environmental factors like strong winds, hail, sleet, and high temperatures can shorten the life span of or damage solar panels.

Closing Thoughts

Solar energy is a sustainable, eco-friendly alternative to power derived from fossil fuels. Over the last decade, it has become increasingly available to American households, seeing meteoric rises in popularity in the late 2010s. Unfortunately, the steep barrier to entry into solar can be a tough hurdle for many. Nevertheless, we hope this article helps you find the best solar panels for your home and budget when it comes time to make a move to solar.

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