Types of solar panels

Most of the solar panel options currently available fit in one of three types: monocrystallinepolycrystalline (also known as multi-crystalline), and thin-film. These solar panels vary in how they’re made, appearance, performance, costs, and the installations each are best suited for.

Depending on the type of installation you’re considering, one option may be more suitable than the others.

The major types of solar panels

There are three major types of solar panels: monocrystallinepolycrystalline, and thin-film. Each type has its own unique advantages and disadvantages, and the solar panel type best suited for your installation will depend on factors specific to your own property and desired system characteristics.

Solar panel typeAdvantagesDisadvantages
MonocrystallineHigh efficiency/performanceAestheticsHigher costs
PolycrystallineLow costLower efficiency/performance
Thin-filmPortable and flexibleLightweightAestheticsLowest efficiency/performance

Below, we’ll break down some common questions and concerns about solar panels and how different types of panels have varying characteristics.

What are different solar panels made of?

To produce electricity, solar cells are made from a semiconducting material that converts light into electricity. The most common material used as a semiconductor during the solar cell manufacturing process is silicon. 

Monocrystalline and polycrystalline solar panels

Both monocrystalline and polycrystalline solar panels have cells made of silicon wafers. To build a monocrystalline or polycrystalline panel, wafers are assembled into rows and columns to form a rectangle, covered with a glass sheet, and framed together. 

While both of these types of solar panels have cells made from silicon, monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels vary in the composition of the silicon itself. Monocrystalline solar cells are cut from a single, pure crystal of silicon. Alternatively, polycrystalline solar cells are composed of fragments of silicon crystals that are melted together in a mold before being cut into wafers.

Thin-film solar panels

Unlike monocrystalline and polycrystalline solar panels, thin-film panels are made from a variety of materials. The most prevalent type of thin-film solar panel is made from cadmium telluride (CdTe). To make this type of thin-film panel, manufacturers place a layer of CdTe between transparent conducting layers that help capture sunlight. This type of thin-film technology also has a glass layer on the top for protection.

Thin-film solar panels can also be made from amorphous silicon (a-Si), which is similar to the composition of monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels. Though these thin-film panels use silicon in their composition, they are not made up of solid silicon wafers. Rather, they’re composed of non-crystalline silicon placed on top of glass, plastic, or metal.

Lastly, Copper Indium Gallium Selenide (CIGS) panels are another popular type of thin-film technology. CIGS panels have all four elements placed between two conductive layers (i.e. glass, plastic, aluminum, or steel), and electrodes are placed on the front and the back of the material to capture electrical currents.

What do different solar panel types look like?

The differences in materials and production cause differences in appearance between each type of solar panel:

Monocrystalline solar panels

If you see a solar panel with black cells, it’s most likely a monocrystalline panel. These cells appear black because of how light interacts with the pure silicon crystal.

While the solar cells themselves are black, monocrystalline solar panels have a variety of colors for their back sheets and frames. The back sheet of the solar panel will most often be black, silver or white, while the metal frames are typically black or silver. 

Polycrystalline solar panels

Unlike monocrystalline solar cells, polycrystalline solar cells tend to have a bluish hue to them due to the light reflecting off the silicon fragments in the cell in a different way than it reflects off a pure monocrystalline silicon wafer. 

Similarly to monocrystalline, polycrystalline panels have different colors for back sheets and frames. Most often, the frames of polycrystalline panels are silver, and the back sheets are either silver or white.

Thin-film solar panels

The biggest differentiating aesthetic factor when it comes to thin-film solar panels is how thin and low-profile the technology is. As their name suggests, thin-film panels are often slimmer than other panel ty[es. This is because the cells within the panels are roughly 350 times thinner than the crystalline wafers used in monocrystalline and polycrystalline solar panels. 

It’s important to keep in mind that while the thin-film cells themselves may be much thinner than traditional solar cells, an entire thin-film panel may be similar in thickness to a monocrystalline or polycrystalline solar panel if it includes a thick frame. There are adhesive thin-film solar panels that lie as-close-as-possible to the surface of a roof, but there are more durable thin-film panels that have frames up to 50 millimeters thick.  

As far as color goes, thin-film solar panels can come in both blue and black hues, depending on what they’re made from. 

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