If you’ve ever taken a look at the solar panel market you’ll know there is a lot of variety in the types of solar panels for home use available. They all do the same thing in the end, but they’re all very different products both in design and execution. These differences may not be important to some people but in certain cases could cause a dramatic decrease in efficiency and power output.
An average consumer probably won’t know the particulars of any of the different types of solar panels (like portable solar panels and flexible solar panels) available which means they won’t be able to make the most informed decision if they decide to purchase solar panels. That’s where this article comes in. We’ve researched the most common and popular kinds of solar panels used today. Below we’ve detailed how the key component, the solar cells, operate and the differences between them.
Most Common Solar Cell Types
Solar cells are the part of a solar panel which do most of the work. They take in the sunlight itself so basically, a solar panel is only as good as its solar cells.
Silicon Solar Cells
First we have Silicon Solar Cells. These are by far the most commonly used cells within most types of solar panels making up around 90% of the solar panels on the market currently. There are a few variations on silicon solar cells determined by its purity. Purity in this case refers to the molecules alignment, better alignment equals more efficiency. 95% of these silicon cells are made of crystalline silicon which is either Monocrystalline Silicon solar cells, or Polycrystalline Silicon Solar cells.
Monocrystalline Silicon Solar Cells are identifiable by its deep blue color. It has the highest purity of all different types of solar panels, and operates at upwards of 20% efficiency. These cells use something called silicon ingots, which help increase performance and efficiency. Also, it’s the most space efficient of all the cells, which would be logical because of its high purity. Even better, it’s the longest lasting of all the solar cells currently available but all these amazing aspects come at a cost, specifically the cost of the product. These monocrystalline silicon cells are the most expensive of any of the solar cells on the market.
Polycrystalline Solar Cells are a paler shade of blue and are a bit less efficient, but were the first cells introduced in the consumer market all the way back in 1981. They operate at around 15% efficiency, however they are less space efficient and are much less heat tolerant making Monocrystalline Silicon Solar cells the better option.
Thin Film Solar Cells
As of 2011 these represented 5% of all solar panels on the market. There are a few different slight variations on thin film cells, but all fall around 11% efficiency. Newer versions are predicted to get as much as 16% efficiency, making them potentially better investments than some polycrystalline silicon solar cells. These operate by using very thin layers of silicon film or a similar material, and layer them on top of each other. They’re also very flexible which is opening the door for new applications for solar products. These are extremely cheap to produce as well, making many manufacturers start to switch to thin film cells for new types of solar panels. However, they have a significantly shorter lifespan than some other solar cells making them less suited for very long term use.
Amorphous Silicon Solar Cells
These solar cells are used for very small products such as yard lights or some calculators. They’re far too small and inefficient for anyone who would be considering them to power their home or any major appliances.
This is one of the relatively new types of solar panels, but you’ll want to be aware of it as it’s becoming more commonplace. Its main draw is how inexpensive it is to produce. It uses very little water and almost no energy during its production, and the time it takes to create is very minimal. This makes it a good choice to anyone trying to lower their carbon footprint, or anyone who is worried about the environment in general. So why don’t you see these solar cells used more often. Well, to put it bluntly, it’s highly toxic. Cadmium Telluride is extremely toxic if you breathe it in, and even more so when ingested, which is preventing most industries from committing to using Cadmium Telluride solar cells.
Organic Solar Cells
These are not technically available yet, but will be very soon. This is the third generation of the previous thin film solar cell technology and is made entirely of organic molecules, meaning molecules made of carbon. This means it can be used on just about anything, including clothing, electronics, windows, or even something like a tent. Also, they’re extremely cheap and easy to produce because the chemical industry mass creates organic molecules, and they’re even more attractive as a solar panel component because the molecules are solution processable. So why don’t you hear about this cutting edge technology more? The efficiency of these types of solar panels is extremely low, at around 8% and even worse, their lifespan is extremely short because, ironically, they degrade in the sun.
The Different types of Solar Panels
Now you know about the different types of solar cells, but what about the solar panels themselves, and the products that use them? Below we’ll outline the more common types of solar panels, and what their purpose is. (Note that we’re not including DIY solar kits or solar orbs in the list below.)
Flat Roof Panels
The most common kind of solar panel used in commercial buildings would be flat roof solar panels. You see them or rather, don’t see them, on top of buildings with long flat roofs. They sit flat against the roof, absorbing sunlight all day. A very modern example of this is using flat roof panels on top of carports to power the entire parking lot lighting and sometimes more.
Sloped Roof Panels
These solar panels are much more commonly seen on houses as they more often have sloped roofs. If used correctly, and with a house facing the ideal direction for sun, they offer a great source of money saving opportunities. While this is probably one of the most ideal types of solar panels for homes it’s less often used for commercial space as they usually have a flat roof. This doesn’t mean you NEED a sloped roof, because they make stands or braces for sloped panels, it’s just an extra investment.
Ground Mounted Solar Panels
These are solar panels that are mounted directly to the ground somehow. Some are on a very small base, almost acting like a flat roof panel, but more commonly they will be on a base that moves with the sun, called a solar tracker. The solar trackers adjusts the panel to it’s always facing directly into the sun. This allows you to get the most sunlight out of each day, which means the most energy. These are usually seen at larger facilities, or even as the source of power for entire communities. (There are a few other niche products, like marine solar panels, that haven’t been included above.)
You’ve probably heard solar power being criticized for being inefficient and too expensive initially. If you consider the long term savings though it makes sense for most people, especially larger businesses, to use solar as an extra source of savings. The most common type of solar panels last for 25 years as well, meaning the initial investment is one that will last a long time. Also because they only use the sun to create energy, most types of solar panels are extremely environmentally friendly, both in production and use. Another reason to consider using solar is the ease of use. Most systems work on an automatic solar activated timer which means you won’t need to monitor the system all the time or remember to turn anything on or off. Furthermore, in combination with the environmentally friendly aspects of solar power, aesthetically they look great. Almost any property can be improved both in energy efficiency, and design when you use solar panels.
There are however some drawbacks and things to consider when using solar power. One of the things to consider is that you need to live somewhere that gets adequate sunlight most of the year to get the most savings from your solar panels. Another issue is that solar panels need to be cleaned fairly often to keep them working their best. Finally, solar panels are unreliable because you can’t always guarantee there will be sunlight, so if you plan on using solar panels as a primary source of power you may want to reconsider. (Looking for more cool solar products? Check out our best solar phone chargers.)