Types of Solar Panels

types of solar panels

Going green and making the switch to solar energy is not a small investment. As such, you must understand the four different types of solar panels and the benefits and drawbacks of each one to make the right choice. While the most obvious advantage of going solar is that it helps our planet recover, it’s also practical as it enables homeowners to save money on electricity bills.

The rooftop solar panels available today fall under four major groups: monocrystalline, polycrystalline, passive emitter and rear cell, and thin film. This variety gives you the option to choose the one suitable for your home – depending on performance, cost, or appearance.

In this article, we’ll cover:

What Are Solar Panels?

graphic showing how a solar power works

Moving away from our reliance on power grids is not just a trend. It’s actually becoming the norm these days, with the federal government even supporting it. Not only did the U.S. Congress extend the Investment Tax Credit, but they also raised the amount. Instead of 26%, they are now providing a 30% tax credit for solar installations from 2022 to 2032. But don’t wait for long. They will lower it again to 26% for systems installed in 2033 and 22% for those in 2034.

At its simplest definition, solar panels collect the sun’s energy and convert it into electricity. Particles of solar energy from the light of the sun, known as photons, strike the panel’s surface. Then it removes the electrons to generate an electric field used as a power supply for electrical appliances.

The photovoltaic cell, made of semiconductor material, can effectively conduct electricity. If you shine a light on a PV cell, it can either absorb, reflect, or let the light pass through. This whole process is known as the photovoltaic effect and is the reason solar panels are also called “PV panels.”

So with these panels installed in your home, you can start living off-grid – whether you’re staying in remote cabins or residing in the city. Since you’re no longer dependent on and at the mercy of power companies, you can say goodbye to rolling blackouts and price hikes.

But apart from these practical benefits of solar panels, you have a sense of pride that you’re helping reduce the emission of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere.

What are the Different Types of Solar Panels?

Solar Panels on a House
Photo Credit: Pxhere

Let’s get into the details of each type of solar panel, including what they look like, how they work, and their pros and cons. This way, you can better decide which one is the most suitable for you.

Monocrystalline Solar Panels

Compared to the other three types of solar panels, monocrystalline solar panels are the most expensive because of the way they’re manufactured. Consequently, it’s also the most efficient. The Czochralski method is an energy-intensive process whereby manufacturers have to shoulder the cost of creating pure silicon crystals that make up the solar panels. Unfortunately, the process also can result in the waste of the crystals.

Monocrystalline solar panels are mostly dark black in color, with white spaces enclosing them. It works well with most home designs as it’s easier for them to blend in. For instance, you can have them installed on your roof as solar shingles or solar roofs.

Pros of Monocrystalline Solar Panels

Here is a list of the advantages you can get if you decide to have mono panels installed:

  • Lasts a long time. These single-crystal panels have been around for quite some time, and such developments have continued to evolve. It’s not surprising that they are one of the most durable types of solar cells, with performance warranties for up to 25 years.
  • Highest level of efficiency. Since mono panels are made from very high-grade crystalline silicon material, they have the highest efficiency rating, converting about 24% of sunlight into electrical energy.
  • Occupies a smaller space. With a very high level of efficiency, you won’t need a lot of modules compared to the other three types of solar panels. An especially crucial factor in an urban setting, you will only need a small area for high energy output.
  • Performs well even in low light. If you live in an area where it’s mostly cloudy, a monocrystalline silicon panel is a great choice. While all panels experience a reduction in power output during cloudy conditions, it’s more negligible with this type of panel.
  • More efficient in warm weather. Electricity production normally drops in high temperatures. While the difference is small, monocrystalline solar panels offer the greatest efficiency even if the temperature goes up during hot weather.

Cons of Monocrystalline Solar Panels

Below are the downsides of monocrystalline panels:

  • Quite expensive. The initial cost of monocrystalline solar panels is significantly greater because of their highly complex manufacturing process. Still, a more extensive evaluation of the cost-to-benefit breakdown will reveal that this is the best option in the long run.
  • Poor performance in low temperatures. While it works exceedingly well in warm weather, this type of crystalline panel has reduced performance in low-temperature. So if you live up North where it’s cold many months of the year, it’s best to check other types.
  • Panels are fragile. The panels can last for 20 to 40 years in normal use, barring outside conditions. They are still fragile, though. While the monocrystalline solar cells are covered in glass, this doesn’t offer a high level of protection and can still get damaged by falling branches or flying objects.

Polycrystalline Solar Panels

Polycrystalline, as the name implies, is made up of multiple crystals, which makes the manufacturing process cheaper. As such, this multi-crystalline panel is also less costly than a monocrystalline. Melted silicon fragments are poured over to a square mold, minimizing waste compared to the production of mono panels. In fact, leftover silicon ingots from manufacturing mono can be used to create polycrystalline panels.

Since the panels are not made of a single crystal, they have a less uniform appearance. Furthermore, using multiple crystals for polycrystalline solar cells lowers their purity, compromising efficiency when converting sunlight to electricity. But comparing them with mono panels, the difference in efficiency is not really that significant. That’s why polycrystalline panels are becoming a popular option among homeowners.

Pros of Polycrystalline Solar Panels

Below are several benefits of choosing polycrystalline solar panels:

  • Increased level of efficiency. Polycrystalline solar panels provide a better option than the other types, excluding mono panels. With an efficiency reaching up to 20%, it offers a better solution if you factor in the cost.
  • Lower costs. This is the biggest benefit of choosing polycrystalline over the rest. Due to its inexpensive manufacturing overhead, it has a significantly lower upfront cost than mono panels. And while thin-film panels are also affordable, the efficiency of polycrystalline is much greater.
  • Highest level of durability. When it comes to durability against external conditions, polycrystalline panels are the strongest. So if you’re in an area often battered by winds or flying branches, this is your best choice.
  • More friendly to the environment. If you want to go green all the way, polycrystalline solar panels have the most eco-friendly manufacturing process. The panels are made from recycled materials, and manufacturing them does not require toxic chemicals.

Cons of Polycrystalline Solar Panels

Here are the drawbacks of using polycrystalline solar panels:

  • Lower efficiency than monocrystalline panels. Polycrystalline only comes second when it comes to solar panel efficiency, converting at least 5% less sunlight to electricity than mono panels.
  • Occupies more space. With lower efficiency, you will need more polycrystalline solar panels to achieve the same level of sunlight conversion as monocrystalline.
  • Shorter lifespan than monocrystalline panels. Since polycrystalline panels are manufactured from a combination of multiple crystals, they naturally have grain boundaries between cells, resulting in faster degradation of the silicon wafers over time.
  • Heat further lowers efficiency. The same grain boundaries also act as sites where heat travels, negatively impacting its efficiency in converting sunlight into electricity.

Passive Emitter and Rear Cell (PERC) Solar Panels

While Passive Emitter and Rear Cell or PERC is an offshoot of monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels, it deserves to be categorized on its own because it’s actually an improvement of the base version. Manufacturing PERC cells is pretty much the same as monocrystalline and polycrystalline but with added steps. These additional processes help add a reflective property to PERC cells, leading to the highest energy efficiency rating.

A PERC cell adds a passivation layer to the rear surface of the cell. This layer gives several benefits that help increase sunlight conversion, such as reflecting light back into the cell, reducing the tendency of electrons to recombine, and allowing a greater wavelength of light to be converted.

A PERC solar panel inherits the appearance of its base cell. So for mono PERC solar cells, the panels have a black hue, while poly PERC solar cells have a bluish tint.

Pros of PERC Solar Panels

Below are the advantages of choosing PERC solar panels:

  • Enhanced efficiency. PERC panels can achieve almost 1% higher efficiency than traditional silicon panels. While this figure may look like something that’s negligible, it’s actually about a 5% increase when you invest in a full PV system.
  • Occupies less area. With higher efficiency, you’ll need fewer panels, which means a smaller area to occupy. PERC solar panels are a great option for those with limited roof space.
  • Lesser expenses on labor. Since there are fewer panels to install, the labor cost for the installation, wiring, and inverters are significantly less.
  • Performs well in extreme conditions. PERC solar panels have lower heat absorption while also having increased light absorption capability. Contrary to other types of solar panels, PERC can generate electricity even if there’s constant cloud cover or if the temperature is hot.

Cons of PERC Solar Panels

Here are the disadvantages of PERC solar panel installations:

  • Pronounced occurrence of LID. Light-induced degradation, or LID, is a common occurrence in all silicon solar panels. It reduces the panels’ energy generation capabilities. However, this reduction can be worse in PERC panels. As a workaround, only get high-quality PERC solar panels from the best manufacturers.
  • Relatively higher costs. Since you need to get high-quality panels to offset the effects of LID, you may end up spending more. Even with fewer panels required to install, resulting in lower labor costs, PERC solar panels will still be relatively more expensive than other types of silicon panels.

Thin-Film Solar Panels

A thin-film solar panel is relatively new and is also known as a flexible solar panel. While the other three types of solar panels are made from silicon crystals, thin films can use different materials. It uses photovoltaic substances such as cadmium telluride (CdTe), copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS), and amorphous silicon (a-Si). The manufacturing process typically involves placing a thin layer of the chosen substance between thin sheets of conductive materials. Then it’s placed onto a solid glass surface to create a panel.

As its name suggests, solar panels of this type are very thin compared to the rest – they’re approximately 350 times thinner. A thin-film solar panel also can use other highly flexible panels instead of glass, which means its shape and size are customizable.

These panels made of thin-film solar cells have the sleekest appearance among all the main types of solar panels. With solid black color, they blend easily with almost any roofing.

Pros of Thin-Film Solar Panels

Here are the pros of choosing thin-film solar panels:

  • Allows a wider range of applications. Thin-film solar panels can easily adapt to different kinds of installations because their shape and size can be customized. It’s an ideal choice even for RVs, caravans, and boats.
  • Lightweight installation. Since this type of panel is lightweight, it’s suitable for any type of roofing, including those that can’t handle too much weight.
  • Temporary or permanent installation. Aside from being lightweight, thin-film solar panels are also portable. You can easily move the panels to another location in case it’s more suitable.
  • Lower upfront costs. These panels don’t undergo the same process to manufacture, making them cheaper than traditional silicon solar panels.

Cons of Thin-Film Solar Panels

Thin-film solar panels also come with their own drawbacks. Here’s what you should know:

  • Lower efficiency. Compared to silicon types, thin-film panels have lower efficiency in converting sunlight to electricity. This means you might need to install more panels to generate the power you need for your home.
  • Occupies more space. Since you need to have more panels to generate your required electricity, they will naturally take up more space. You could even end up covering your entire rooftop to get the power capacity you need.
  • Shortest lifespan. Compared to the other types of solar panels, thin-film panels have the shortest lifespan, which is only about 10 to 20 years. However, keep in mind that thin-film solar panels also offer the fastest payback time, usually within eight years.

Side-by-Side Comparison of Solar Panel Types

To help you easily decide which type of solar panel is right for you, here’s a comparison chart highlighting their most common features and differences.

EfficiencyUp to 24%Up to 20%Up to 21%Up to 19%
Lifespan25 to 40 years20 to 40 years25 to 30 years10 to 20 years
ColorBlackBlueBlack or blueBlack
BenefitsHigh power generationHighest durabilityHighest energy efficiencyFastest payback
DrawbacksExpensiveLower heat toleranceWorst LIDShortest lifespan
Cost per watt$0.90 – $1.40$0.70 – $1.00$0.32 – $0.65$0.60 – $1.00

How To Decide Which Type of Solar Panel Is Right for You

Converting your home to using a complete solar panel system is a hefty investment, so it’s vital to get the most important factors covered. And now that you have a good overview of the different types of solar panels, it will be easier for you to understand and consider these aspects:

  • System and installation costs. This is one of the most important factors in choosing a solar PV system. You can discuss the options available with your local solar provider, including how much solar panels cost you upfront. You also have to consider how long it will take to get your return on investment. Ultimately, your choice will come down to the best value.
  • Manufacturer’s warranty and installer’s guarantee. To keep you covered from sudden malfunction or product failure, you have to choose a solar panel with a long warranty. It’s also best to get some risk-free guarantee from your solar provider in case there’s an issue with the installation.
  • Maximizing efficiency. While these types of solar panels have different levels of efficiency, other environmental conditions also can affect their performance. Choose the type that would work well where you live. For instance, if you’re living in a place with constant cloud cover, choose one that works well in low-light conditions.
  • Optimizing placement. The area where you’ll install the panels is also important. Of course, you would want one that can capture the most sunlight throughout the day, which is usually your home’s roof. Besides the installation area, consider how much weight your roof can support.

FAQ About the Types of Solar Panels

How many solar panels are needed to power a house?

It will largely depend on the monthly electric consumption of the entire household, as well as the electricity produced by each panel. So, for instance, a house consuming 1000 kWh every month will need between 26 to 30 solar panels, assuming each panel can produce 320 watts.

Can a house run on solar power alone?

Yes, it can. With the developments in solar panels these days, the combination of high-efficiency solar panels, reliable power storage, and more affordable pricing makes it possible for homeowners to power their entire home with solar.

Do solar panels work on cloudy days?

Yes, they can generate solar power either through direct or indirect sunlight. However, they are most efficient under direct sunlight. The amount of energy they will generate on cloudy days will depend on the quality and efficiency of your panels.

Confidently Choose the Right Solar Panel Setup for Your Home

Having learned the four main types of solar panels, as well as their advantages and disadvantages, you should have an easier time picking the best solar panel suitable for your home. Even if you haven’t fully decided which type to get yet, you should now be able to discuss it confidently with your local solar provider.

Ready to go solar? Connect with solar providers in your area and start moving off the grid.

Main Photo by: Canva Pro

Melanie Joseph

After discovering her passion for writing through her beauty blog, Melanie left her engineering job in California, became a writer, and never once looked back. When she isn't writing, she loves dipping in the pool, tending to the garden, or doing simple home improvement projects.