Solar Panel Types

4 Solar Panel Types You Should Know About Before You Buy

If you look at different solar panel types, they all look the same besides their color and build. Although the color is a distinction that indicates something important, it leaves you with the question: do they work and cost the same? Short answer, no they don’t. 

In this article, we’ll talk about the different types of solar panels, what they’re good for, what certain panel types work for what, and how choosing the right panel can benefit you in the long run. Read on. 

The 4 Main Types of Solar Panels

The 4 Main Types of Solar Panels

There are 4 types of solar panels: monocrystalline, PERC (a newer type of monocrystalline panel), polycrystalline, and thin-film solar panels (the least popular). Explanation below.

1) Monocrystalline solar panels

Monocrystalline solar panels are made with pure silicon crystalline and have the highest power output and efficiency rating of 17% up to 25%. These solar panels cost between $1 and $1.50 per watt, however, prices may vary depending on the location and the brand you’re buying from

A monocrystalline solar panel system performs best in moderate temperatures (heat coefficiency), otherwise, overall efficiency may decrease. Since it is made of pure silicon, monos are the most space-efficient and durable among all four solar panel types, plus they guarantee the best ROI during its life expectancy of up to 25 years. 

Different monocrystalline solar cells have unique advantages and vary in cost, efficiency, and application, with some being more suitable for ground-mounted systems. Additionally, monos remain a top choice for their aesthetic appeal which comes from their all-black appearance. 

Downsides of monocrystalline panels: 

  • More expensive and more wasteful to produce — over 50% of silicon is wasted to produce a single monocrystalline cell
  • Monocrystalline solar often requires a larger upfront investment than other types of solar panels

2) Passivated Emitter and Rear Cell (PERC) panels

Passivated emitter and rear cells (PERC) are improved traditional monocrystalline cells with a slightly higher efficiency of 5% and higher renewable energy output (up to 30% efficiency ratio). PERC’s new technology adds a passivation layer in the rear surface of a mono cell, enhancing the efficiency by reflecting the sunlight into the cell, increasing the amount of radiation absorbed while reducing the chances of electrons piecing back together—which can slow down the flow of electrons in the system.

Downside(s) of PERC panels:

  • Slightly more expensive than the already expensive monocrystalline solar panels, mainly for the added parts and materials used

3) Polycrystalline solar panels

Polycrystalline solar panels (polys) are great for home and business owners on a budget looking to invest in solar without compromising too much on performance. Polys are a cheaper alternative to monos with an efficiency rate of 13% up to 16% and a very decent energy output.

Polycrystalline panels use silicon fragments melted together, making them a more cost-effective option (with a warranty of 25 years, which may vary per brand) and less wasteful. Although inferior in efficiency, energy conversion, and space, their look and feel aren’t too far from their mono equivalent. 

Identical to monocrystalline solar, a poly’s lifespan can easily last up to 25 years with proper care and maintenance. 

Lastly, polys have a bluish tint with a slightly grainy texture and are much harder to match—or camouflage—to a home or an establishment’s aesthetic. 

Downside(s) of polycrystalline panels:

  • Lower silicon purity and construction
  • Not as aesthetically pleasing and subtle-looking as monocrystalline solars
  • Even worse heat tolerance compared to monos, and can be less efficient in high-temperature environments, affecting the output

4) Thin-film solar panels

Characterized by fine layers that are thin enough to be flexible, thin-film (or TF) solar panels have a lower efficiency rate, ranging from 10% to 13%, and cost between $1 and $1.50 per watt. TF panels are the least efficient solar panels on the market and are rarely used for residential purposes, however, a top choice for yachts, camper vans, RVs, and other outdoor activities. 

Thin film solar cells are highly lightweight and malleable with no need for backing, making them even lighter and easier to install and move around. Also, TFs have the best temperature coefficient and rock a thin, all-black appearance that some homeowners find attractive. 

Advantages of TF panels over silicon solar cells:

  • Flexibility
  • Lightweight (ideal for outdoor activities, and generally used for camper vans), and malleable (making installing solar panels less complicated or generally easier)
  • Since they’re cheaper to produce, they’re also relatively cheaper to have installed
  • Certain types of thin film solar panels are aesthetically pleasing than polycrystalline solar panels counterpart

Downside(s) of thin-film panels:

  • Much lower efficiency rate and energy output (compared to silicon solar cells)
  • A shorter life span of 10 to 20 years only

Thin-Film Solar Panel Variations

Thin-Film Solar Panel Variations
Photo from Wikipedia

Thin-film (TF) solar panels are made from different materials, namely:

1) Cadmium telluride (CdTe)

Shares the same low-cost advantage as polycrystalline cells, CdTe has the lowest carbon footprint, water requirement, and energy payback time, especially for thin-film panels. However, CdTes might be decent at efficiency with a 9% up to 11% on-field efficiency rating, but cadmium is toxic. Cadmium telluride thin-film is the second most used solar cell type worldwide after the crystalline options. 

Cons: Cadmium is a naturally toxic metal, making disposal and recycling more expensive than other materials.

2) Amorphous silicon (a-Si)

Unlike mono-and polycrystalline solar cells, the silicon is not structured on the molecular level and is only around 6% up to 8% efficiency ratio. a-Si solar panels require only a small amount of silicon to manufacture, and the silicone part is just the first of three thin layers of this panel. This allows a-Si to remain low on production cost but at the expense of efficiency. 

This is why an a-Si TF is only recommended for uses that require minimal power.

Amorphous panels do well in warmer climates because they can withstand intense heat and are more adept at generating energy on darker days.

Cons: A lower efficiency ratio of only 6% up to 8% and not as durable as other types of solar panels.

3) Copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS)

A thin-film solar panel variant with a peak efficiency rating of 13% up to 15% (highest for thin-film solar panels). It uses a thin layer of copper, indium, gallium, and selenium on a plastic backing and is considerably more expensive to produce than CdTe and a-Si counterparts.

The installation cost for TF is generally cheaper than for crystalline panels. TF panels are less labor-intensive and time-consuming because they’re lighter and malleable—easier to carry, move around, and keep in place without breaking. 

Cons: CIGS are expensive to produce compared to other types of TF panels.

Solar Panel Types by Efficiency

Here’s a list of the different solar types, inclusive of all crystalline and thin-film solar panels, and their efficiency ratio, (descending). 

Panel typeEfficiency
PERCHighest (5% more than monocrystalline)
Monocrystalline20% and up
Copper indium gallium selenide (CIGS) 13-15%
Cadmium telluride (CdTe)9-11%
Amorphous silicon (a-Si)6-8%
Table by Aurora Solar

Note: TF solar panels are generally 2% to 3% less efficient than crystalline silicon

Solar Panel Types by Power Capacity

The single-crystal structure of monocrystalline panels allows the system to have the highest power capacity and energy output in a smaller package. Most monocrystalline can produce an output of up to 300w of power capacity per panel.

On the other hand, polycrystalline panels bridge the gap between cost and capacity. Making a standard 60-cell polycrystalline capable of producing between 240-300w.

Thin-film (TF) panels have no standard sizes unlike crystalline panels, so there is no standard measure of power capacity. The capacity of a single TF panel will depend on its size. 

Solar Panel Types by Cost

Monocrystalline panels (especially PERCs) are expensive. This is because of their wasteful use of materials and intensive production and installation. Of course, that cost is shouldered by the customers. As you know, only 50% of pure silicon crystals are utilized when making the mono panels. The other 50%, which are trimmings and leftover crystals, are either thrown or repurposed to make polycrystalline panels. 

The cheaper options if you’re aiming for crystalline panels are Polycrystalline panels or polys. Polycrystalline is cheaper because it uses the crystal fragments leftover (as mentioned earlier) from monocrystalline production. The manufacturing process of polys is simpler and considerably cheaper, thus cheaper when bought off the shelves as well.

As for thin-film panels, CIGS’ is the flagship, then CdTe (mid-range), then amorphous silicon or a-Si (low-end). They’re easy to install as they’re not as fragile as crystalline panels. They’re also lightweight, malleable, and durable. *Not recommended for residential use. 

Considerations When Choosing Your Solar Panel Type

When picking a solar panel for your home, think about your priorities: cost or performance. A pricier, long-lasting system can give you more power, but a budget-friendly one can also do the job (if utilised properly) BUT not as efficient.

Other factors to consider when shopping for installers and panels:

  • Overall cost of the solar panel system (Including installation and maintenance)
  • The energy output of solar panel system
  • Energy efficiency ratio (%) of the solar panel (Is it suitable for your energy requirements? Will it be enough to power your home?)
  • The appearance of the solar panels on your property
  • Performance of the solar panel under various temperature conditions
  • Duration of the warranty (Is the warranty long enough?)
  • Dependability of the solar panel system over its lifetime (Is it flimsy? Is it a brand with positive feedback? Does it have everything you need?)
  • Available space for solar panel installation
  • Lifespan of the  solar panels
  • Return on investment

Also, ask for quotations from different companies before deciding and ask for possible financing options, rebates, and incentives—they’re the best people to ask.

Final thoughts

Familiarizing yourself with the types of solar panels can help you make a smart purchase. Each type, like monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels, thin-film (TF) panels, and PERC, has its pros and cons, they also have their situations they can perform best:

  • Monocrystalline panels are great for small spaces and high-energy needs.
  • Polycrystalline panels are a budget-friendly alternative to monos. They’re great but need more room. 
  • Thin-film panels work well in different sunlight conditions, especially under diffused sunlight conditions, and are very flexible for unique installations to generate solar power. 

Consider what matters most to you: efficiency, cost, space, or flexibility. Consulting with a solar expert can also guide you in picking the right type for your home. Knowing these solar panel types, you can make a confident decision that suits your needs and helps you save energy and money in the long run. 

In case you need help identifying which panel type will work best for your specific project, you can talk to one of our experts via a 1:1 consultation call. Book here.


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