Solar energy is one of the most common types of renewable energy, and there are lots of great reasons to put solar panels up. First, you’ll save money on your energy bills– even if you don’t live in a place that’s super sunny, today’s solar panels are highly efficient and can draw some power even on cloudy days. In some areas, you can even make some money, since most energy grids have a buy-back programs for excess solar energy generated by your panels.
Solar panels are a great way to reduce your dependence on aging, sometimes unreliable electricity grids– and with batteries, you can even store your extra solar energy to power your home at night. Solar energy can charge your backup batteries and home power stations in case of emergencies, too. And finally, solar energy is much better for the environment than fossil fuel-based electricity.
But just saying that you want to install solar panels is one thing; actually knowing the best type of solar panel to get is another. There are three main types of solar panels, each one with different advantages and disadvantages.
Know Your Solar Panel Type: An Overview Of The 3 Main Types
There are three main types of solar panels: Monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and thin film panels. While they all have the same effect– turning sunlight into usable electricity- they differ in how they are made, how much they cost, how efficient they are, and what they are frequently used for.
Solar Panel Quick Comparison
|Type of Solar Panel||Cost||Efficiency||Key Features||Typical Uses|
|Monocrystalline||Most expensive||Best: 15%-23%||Most efficient, compact||Home and commercial rooftop use|
|Polycrystalline||Mid-range||13%-17%||Heavy, usually large||Commercial solar installations and solar farms|
|Thin Film||Least expensive||Least efficient: 8% to 12%||Lightweight, flexible, can be made to lots of sizes||Portable devices, oddly shaped installations|
Monocrystalline solar panels are recognized for their high energy efficiency and sleek appearance. They are made from a single continuous crystal structure, usually silicon, which gives them a uniform dark color. These panels are popular with residential users who want their panels to blend in with the roof, since the dark color does not stand out.
Monocrystalline panels offer the highest efficiency rates among all solar panel types, typically ranging from 15% to 23%. They are the most expensive option but are also the most space-efficient, making them a popular choice for residential and commercial installations.
Polycrystalline solar panels are composed of multiple silicon crystals that are fused together. They have a distinctive blue color due to the multiple crystal structures. Polycrystalline panels have slightly lower efficiency rates compared to monocrystalline panels, typically ranging from 13% to 17%. However, they are more affordable to manufacture, making them a cost-effective option for many solar installations.
Polycrystalline panels are also suitable for large-scale projects where space is not a constraint. If you’ve ever driven past a solar farm and seen blue panels tilted up towards the sky, you were looking at polycrystalline solar panels.
We have written a more in depth article that covers polycrystalline vs monocrystalline solar panels if you want to learn more.
Thin film solar panels are distinct from crystalline panels as they are made by depositing thin layers of semiconductor material on a substrate, such as glass or metal. The most common types of thin film panels are:
- Amorphous silicon (a-Si)
- Cadmium telluride (CdTe)
- Copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS)
- Organic photovoltaic (OPV)
Thin film panels are the least efficient among the three types, typically ranging from 8% to 12%. However, they have some advantages, such as flexibility, lightweight design, and better performance under low-light conditions.
They are often used in applications where traditional solar panels just won’t work, such as curved surfaces or portable solar devices. For example, if you’re traveling with a power station or power bank with solar capability, the device will likely use thin film solar panels to save weight.
Solar Panel Type by Performance
There are three major factors that control solar panel performance: efficiency, lighting conditions, and temperature coefficient.
Efficiency refers to the ability of a solar panel to convert sunlight into electricity. The higher the efficiency, the greater the amount of electricity that can be generated from the same amount of sunlight. As discussed previously, monocrystalline panels have the highest efficiency rates– 15%-23%. That might not seem like much, but solar technology is constantly improving. The highest efficiency rating produced in lab conditions was 47.6%.
Polycrystalline panels are less efficient, usually between 13% and 17%. This is related to how electrons flow through the crystalline matrix. Poly panels have a lower electron flow, which means a lower conversion efficiency than monocrystalline panels.
Thin film panels are the least efficient… for now. The technology for thin film solar panels is always developing; in fact, CIGS panel testing in Germany achieved 23% efficiency, on par with the best monocrystalline panels. There are some really spectacular lab test results, including one that generated a whopping 68.9% efficiency under laser light.
While this is not commercially viable (or reasonable to ever expect in a non-lab setting, given that laser light and the sun’s light are different), it is evidence that these solar panels can be made even more effective and efficient. In today’s commercial market, though, they do remain at the bottom of the efficiency ranking, typically ranging from 8%-12% efficiency. Still, it’s a promising future for the least expensive type of solar panel!
Another important consideration is that the technology for thin film solar panels is always developing; in fact, CIGS panel testing in Germany achieved 23% efficiency, on par with the best monocrystalline panels. Lab experiments have seen even higher efficiency, but that technology isn’t commercially available. Still, it’s a promising future for the least expensive type of solar panel!
Solar panels are affected by temperature, and the temperature coefficient measures how their performance is influenced by changes in temperature. This is increasingly important in the face of climate change– our summers are getting hotter, which could affect solar panel performance.
When solar panels are tested for their maximum power output, the industry standard testing temperature is 77°F/25°C. Once the temperature rises above that, solar panels will generate less power. The temperature coefficient describes the percentage of power output that is lost as the temperature rises above 77°F/25°C.
To determine the temperature coefficient, solar panel manufacturers use the Celsius scale. This is important to realize because Celsius degrees are larger than Fahrenheit degrees– each Celsius degree covers a wider range of actual temperature than Fahrenheit degrees. If you try to understand the temperature coefficient with Fahrenheit degrees, you will be working at the wrong scale.
Here’s how temperature coefficients are calculated:
- The efficiency of a solar panel is measured and the temperature above 25°C is recorded.
- The power loss is divided by the degree difference.
- For example, if you’re observing the performance of a solar panel at 28°C, and you see a power loss of 1.08% at that temperature, you divide the power loss by 3 because 28°C is 3 degrees higher than 25°C.
- This gives you a temperature coefficient of -0.36%/°C, which is just listed as -0.36%.
Mono and poly panels usually have similar temperature coefficients, ranging from -0.3% to -0.4% per degree Celsius. Mono panels are usually on the lower end of that scale and perform very well in the heat.
However, thin film panels usually have a temperature coefficient around -0.2%, meaning they handle the heat even better than both types of crystalline panels.
Temperature coefficient is one of the most complicated metrics you can use to judge solar panels. Just remember that you want the number to be smaller– a 2 is better to see than a 3– and you’ll be good to go.
Solar panels are designed to generate electricity from sunlight, but their performance can vary under different lighting conditions, such as direct sunlight, diffused light, or low-light conditions.
Both types of crystalline panels perform well under direct sunlight, which provides the highest intensity of light. They can efficiently convert the direct sunlight into electricity and produce high power output under such conditions.
Thin film panels, on the other hand, have better performance under diffused light or low-light conditions. (Diffused light is sunlight that’s scattered by clouds.) These panels can capture a wider range of the light spectrum, allowing them to generate electricity even in less ideal lighting conditions.
This makes thin film panels suitable for areas with frequent cloud cover or for applications where direct sunlight is limited. However, do be aware that poor light conditions make these, the least-efficient type of solar panel, even less efficient.
Solar Panels By Use Case
So how is each type of solar panel used? Here are some of the common types of solar installations and the types of panels used for them.
Residential solar panels are meant to generate electricity for domestic use.
- Monocrystalline panels are popular because of their efficiency and dark coloration, which blends in with the aesthetic look of most rooftops. They are able to generate more power in a limited space, making them ideal for homes with smaller roof space.
- Polycrystalline panels are used when cost is a concern. These panels strike a happy medium between efficiency and price.
- Thin film panels are rarely used for residential solar because they require too much roof space to generate the power needed to run a home.
Commercial solar panels generate income and energy for businesses. This kind of solar application is often based on warehouse rooftops.
- Monocrystalline panels are used for commercial applications when space is a concern.
- Polycrystalline panels are used whenever possible to save money on the initial installation.
Solar farms generate solar energy that is sold to consumers through the electric grid.
- Polycrystalline panels are almost always used for solar farms because they generate a lot of energy for less cost than monocrystalline panels, and solar farms don’t have to worry about spatial considerations of rooftops or the weight of this type of panel.
Remote or Off-Grid Installations
Remote, off-grid solar installations may include things like cabins, remote telecommunications systems, and RVS.
- Thin film panels are the best for remote installations. They are lightweight and flexible, making them easy to install in even the most difficult locations. They can even be installed on curved or irregular surfaces. They can also generate electricity in low light conditions, which makes them good for off-grid applications where there’s no alternative way to draw power.
Solar Panel Type by Cost
The cost of solar panels can vary widely, but for residential housing, they have seriously dropped in price. Ten years ago, home solar panels cost around $50,000; in 2023, the average price is less than half of that, about $20,000. It’s still a major expense, but there are ways to bring the price down. There are federal tax incentives for solar installation, and many states offer residential solar tax credits.
Monocrystalline solar panels are usually the most expensive option. The manufacturing process is more expensive than the other two types– but the price for these panels has been dropping dramatically as the technology becomes more widespread. Despite the higher initial cost, monocrystalline panels are popular with people who want residential solar due to their high efficiency and performance.
Polycrystalline panels are somewhat less expensive. Their manufacturing process is faster and cheaper, which means that these cost savings are passed down to the consumer. If you want to save money on a home solar installation, poly panels might be an option for you.
The least expensive solar panels are thin film panels. However, these are unusual to see in a residential setting, because they’re inefficient and need a lot of space to generate sufficient electricity. The only reason you’d go with thin film solar panels in a residential installation is if you live somewhere with a lot of year-round cloud cover.
What to Consider When Choosing Types of Solar Panels
When you’re shopping for solar panels, you have a lot to think about.
- How efficient do you need your solar panels to be? Can you sacrifice some efficiency for cost, or do you need the most efficient panel?
- How much space do you have available?
- How much can you afford to spend– are high-end monocrystalline panels in your budget?
- Do you need your solar system to blend into your roof, or are blue poly panels ok?
- What kind of sunlight do you get? Do you need thin film panels that can perform well in lower light conditions?
- How hot is it where you live, and how much efficiency will you lose to high temperatures?
- What is the durability of the panels you are looking at? What kind of weather conditions are prevalent where you are, and could those damage your solar panels?
- What are your project specifics? How much energy do you need to generate?
By asking these questions, you can make a more informed decision when choosing the type of solar panel that best suits your needs and requirements.
Solar panels are a great way to help protect the environment and save money on your energy bills. If you have a cabin or RV, they might be the only way to get reliable power. It’s important to know the right type of solar panel to use. If you’re off-grid, the right type is usually thin film. If you’re looking for a residential solar panel that ties into the electric grid, the efficiency and spatial considerations of crystalline panels make them the best choice.
Max DesMarais is the founder of hikingandfishing.com. He has a passion for the outdoors and making outdoor education and adventure more accessible. Max is a published author for various outdoor adventure, travel, and marketing websites. He is an experienced hiker, backpacker, fly fisherman, trail runner, and spends his free time in the outdoors. These adventures allow him to test gear, learn new skills, and experience new places so that he can educate others. Max grew up hiking all around New Hampshire and New England. He became obsessed with the New Hampshire mountains, and the NH 48, where he guided hikes and trail runs in the White Mountains. Since moving out west, Max has continued his frequent adventures in the mountains, always testing gear, learning skills, gaining experience, and building his endurance for outdoor sports. You can read more about his experience here: hikingandfishing/about