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Types of Solar Panels: Which Is Best for You?

Different types of solar panels

Polycrystalline panels are the cheaper option but are also less efficient

Monocrystalline panels are sleek but expensive

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Solar panels have come a long way over the past decade. Not only have they become 88% cheaper (UK Government, 2021), but the technology has also advanced, meaning people now have a wider selection of residential panels to choose from.

There are currently three main types of domestic solar panels on the market: polycrystalline, monocrystalline, and thin film.

If you’re considering investing in solar, it’s worth scrolling down to see which type of solar panel will best suit you and your family. We’ll guide you through the main differences, the costs, and the efficiency rating of each type.

Already know which type of panels your home needs? Perhaps it’s time you start comparing prices. To speed up this process, pop your details in this short form – we’ll put you in touch with our reliable local installers, who will provide you with prices to compare.

House with solar panels on it

The three types of solar panels explained

There are three main types of residential solar panels available for homeowners: monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and thin film.

Each of these panels comes with their own advantages and disadvantages, and will suit different homes better. To give you a clear overview, we’ve ranked how each panel performs in terms of affordability, efficiency, appearance, and lifespan.

Type of panel
Affordability
Efficiency
Appearance
Lifespan
Monocrystalline
★★
Polycrystalline
Thin film
☆☆

Ratings based on the findings below

Monocrystalline solar panels

These panels are called ‘monocrystalline’ because the material used to make them is single-crystal silicon, which is then formed into bars and cut into wafers. Although they tend to be the more expensive option, monocrystalline solar cells are one of the most popular panel types.

One of the main reasons for monocrystalline’s popularity is its high efficiency rating. Since a monocrystalline cell is composed of a single crystal, the electrons that generate a flow of electricity have more room to move. As a result, monocrystalline solar cells are more efficient than their polycrystalline counterparts – with an efficiency rating of between 15% to 20%.

In fact, monocrystalline solar panels tend to have the highest efficiency on the market, and they can even reach up to 24% efficiency in some circumstances.

Their black colour and octagonal-shaped cells also make monocrystalline solar panels great for anyone wanting an aesthetically pleasing look for their home.

Average price of 250-watt monocrystalline panelAverage efficiency rating Average lifespan
£250–£37515–20%30–50 years

Polycrystalline solar panels

Unlike monocrystalline panels, the production of polycrystalline solar cells involves melting silicon and pouring it into a square mould. By doing this, the panels have a blue mosaic look to them, rather than the sleek octagons you see on monocrystalline panels.

Since very little silicon is wasted during this manufacturing process, polycrystalline cells tend to be more affordable than monocrystalline panels. They also tend to be more eco-friendly, since they avoid wasting precious materials.

However, bear in mind that polycrystalline panels have more than one crystal in each cell, which means there is less freedom for the electrons to move – making them less efficient than monocrystalline solar panels. In fact, the average efficiency rating on these panels is between 13–16%.

Average price of a 250-watt polycrystalline panelAverage efficiency rating Average lifespan
£225–£25013–16%30–40 years

Thin film solar panels

Thin film solar panels are totally different from monocrystalline and polycrystalline solar panels. These flexible solar sheets are created by placing several thin layers of photovoltaic material – either amorphous silicon, cadmium telluride, copper indium gallium selenide, or organic PV cells – on top of each other.

Depending on the material that is used, the efficiency rating could be anywhere between 7% to 13%. 

Although thin film panels have a much lower efficiency rating than other types of solar panels, their main asset is how aesthetically pleasing they can be. Rather than having bright blue, bulky panels propped on their roofs, many homeowners would rather have these flat sheets that can blend into the background.

Thin film panels are also great for any homes with limited roof space, since they can be wrapped around objects.

Average price of a thin film panelEfficiency rating Average lifespan
£200–£2507–13%10–20 years
Different types of solar panels

Which type of solar panel is best for you?

When it comes to working out which type of solar panel is best, you’ll need to consider what the most important factor is to you. Below, we’ve listed four key concerns for people considering solar panels, and recommended the perfect panel for each one.

  • Affordability – Monocrystalline panels might be off the table if you’re on a budget, since they’re the most expensive type. In this case, you’ll be better off with polycrystalline solar panels – the upfront costs won’t set you back as much, and they’re still more efficient at absorbing energy than thin film panels
  • Aesthetics – If you’re more concerned about how a solar panel system will look on your roof, monocrystalline panels are the way to go. These sleek panels have a modern, symmetrical appearance and look great on any home. If you want to go one step further, you can also look into integrating the solar panels into your roof or consider solar roof tiles
  • Lack of roof space – Worried about whether your roof won’t have enough space for panels? Thin film can help you with that. Its ability to bend around objects means you’ll still be able to utilise solar energy even with limited space available. However, it’s worth thinking hard about whether the upfront cost is worth it, considering how low the efficiency rating can be for some models. And if thin film isn’t your thing, you can always get small sizes in monocrystalline and polycrystalline too!
  • Efficiency – If your only concern is about how much sunlight your panels can convert into energy, we’d recommend getting a set of monocrystalline solar panels. With the highest efficiency rating on the domestic market, they’re your best bet for saving money on energy bills

Alternative solar panel styles

Bifacial solar panels

Bifacial solar cells can absorb sunlight on both sides, and turn this sunshine into energy. Rather than directly from the sun, the back of the panel absorbs sunlight that's reflected from the ground – you can even place a mirror behind these cells so that incoming sunlight can be absorbed twice.

Studies have shown that bifacial models can produce between 10–20% more power than monofacial (traditional) panels – but this efficiency comes at a cost. Bifacial panels can cost approximately 15% more than a monofacial one.

Although these solar panels are fairly new to the commercial market, some companies are already rolling them out, including LG, LONGi, Lumos Solar, Prism Solar, Silfab, Sunpreme, Trina Solar, and Yingli Solar.

Solar roof tiles

Solar tiles work just like panels, converting sunlight into electricity, but are made to look just like traditional roof tiles.

Although solar panels are much cheaper and generally more efficient than solar tiles, they can sometimes deviate from a property’s aesthetic – especially on a listed building. This is why solar tiles are perfect for any homeowners who are put off getting panels because of their appearance.

But before you get too excited, note that solar tiles can cost at least twice as much as solar panels. For example, a 4 kW solar tile system will typically cost between £12,000 and £16,000, while a 4 kW solar panel system usually costs £5,760.

On top of this, you can’t just swap a few regular tiles out for solar ones – instead, you have to replace your entire roof.

Want to learn more? Head over to our comprehensive guide on Solar Roof Tiles Costs 2022.

Transparent solar panels

A transparent solar panel does what it says on the tin – it works exactly like a regular solar panel, but has more of a see-through quality, as it’s typically made of glass.

It’s important to note that, despite being labelled as transparent, some of these panels are only slightly see-through, whilst others are completely see-through.

Their subtle appearance makes transparent panels ideal for use in place of standard glass – which in turn makes them a prime example of ‘building-integrated photovoltaics’ (BIPV). In fact, they have (mostly) been applied in exclusively commercial contexts so far.

One of the main manufacturers of transparent panels is PolySolar, which is currently charging £250 per square metre for its grey-tinted transparent solar panel material.

As for the future? It’s expected that transparent solar panel installations will be around 50% cheaper than standard installations, mainly because buildings will be able to stick with their existing window frames and panes of glass.

Intrigued about how this could benefit your home in the future? Visit our page on Transparent Solar Panels to get ahead of the curve.

Thin film solar panel

Next generation solar panels

Perovskite solar panels

Perovskite solar panels are tandem solar cells (two solar cells stacked one on top of the other), which are created when a thin perovskite cell is placed on top of a standard silicon cell.

In 2018, Oxford PV demonstrated that its perovskite-silicon tandem cells could work at 28% efficiency – around one-third more than current standard PV panels.

In an interview with The Eco Experts, Dr Chris Case, chief technology officer at Oxford PV told us the cells could be “potentially 50% more efficient” than current panels.

Quantum dot solar panels

This new solar innovation uses ‘quantum dots’, which are tiny spheres of semiconductor material – each only about 2–10 billionths of a metre in diameter. Quantum dot solar panels could seriously increase solar efficiency.

But how, exactly? Well, light is made of particles called photons, and solar PV technology converts photons into energy. But quantum dots have something called a “multiple exciton generation” effect, which squeezes out more energy from each photon.

Although it’s still early days, studies have found that quantum dot solar cells have the potential to increase the maximum conversion efficiency of solar panels to about 66% – to compare, domestic panels on the market are only performing at 15–25%.

Zombie solar panels

In a bid to improve solar panel efficiency, researchers have created zombie solar panels – a new type of solar cell that can adapt to the amount of available light. This innovation will even be able to work indoors.

The cells are based on a surprising discovery, which found that some solar cells actually work better when the liquid electrolyte built into them dries out – hence the name “zombie solar cells”.

The cells are a type of thin-film material, usually composed of a dye that absorbs light. This encourages electrons to create a current, which is then carried to the cell’s electrodes by a liquid electrolyte solution.

What’s most impressive about zombie solar panels is that they have power conversion efficiencies of 30%–34%, despite being the size of a credit card or mobile phone.

Next steps

When it comes to domestic solar panels, homeowners can choose between polycrystalline, monocrystalline, and thin film – the right type for you will depend entirely on your priorities.

Want an easy way to find the perfect set of solar panels for your home? We can speed up this process.

All you have to do is pop a few details in this short form, and let us take the reins. We’ll put you in touch with our reliable local installers, who will provide prices for you to compare.

Beth Howell Writer

Beth has a real passion for green living. She’s been absorbed in eco research for over three years, and has become quite the expert. Whether you’re after a new set of solar panels, a home energy improvement, or you want to catch the latest eco news, she’s got your back.

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