How to Find the Best Solar Panels

There are hundreds of types of solar panels to choose from. Newer ideas like thin film solar and solar shingles are competing with the more traditional hard panel. How can you pick the best solar panels for your site?

| September 19, 2013

Focusing on real costs and savings, Home Sweet Zero Energy Home by Barry Rehfeld (New Society Publishers, 2011) is a practical guidebook that clearly identifies all the pieces of zero energy homes and explains how homeowners and buyers can take smaller steps towards reducing the energy use of existing buildings. This excerpt from Chapter 12 discusses the various kinds of solar panels from thin film to solar shingles and will help you find the best solar panels for the job.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Home Sweet Zero Energy Home.

Types of Solar Panels

To look at them, panels are fairly indistinguishable from one another. They’re all blue-black slick-faced rectangles. The most common are made of mono- and polycrystalline silicon. They don’t have a standard size, but they’re likely to be in the range of from about 175 watts to 225 watts. At the midpoint, they’ll weigh in at about 40 pounds and measure about 3 feet by 5 feet. Panels are mounted on metal frames attached to the roof and, barring trees falling on them, are good for 25 years, so say the warranties.

A couple of alternatives exist. One is called thin film solar, which is produced in panels or flexible sheets. It’s a newer product that was supposed to take over the solar market.

With solar panels, efficiency and price track each other closely. The more efficient a solar electric collector is, the more it costs. The crystalline family is the most efficient and most expensive, with mono costing more than poly. Thin film is cheaper and less efficient, but its efficiency was supposed to gain on the crystallines while the price stayed down and the savings would be passed onto the consumer — or, at least, that was the idea. However, while it has been priced competitively, it’s still a work in progress and so takes up more space to catch the same amount of sun. Some roofs may just not have the space, and the roof of a zero energy home in particular shouldn’t have that much room. (SunPower and Sanyo are the leaders in efficiency. Both produce mono-crystalline panels.) Also, the leading thin-film solar material carries a heavy burden inside. It contains cadmium, one of six infamous hazardous substances recognized worldwide. (A less well-known thin-film, which is known by its acronym, CIGS, contains no cadmium.)

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