Which Solar Panels Are Most Efficient?
One of the most common things people ask when they start to consider going solar or start to plan their life-changing solar expedition is which are the most efficient solar panels. However, first of all, that’s not even the right question for most people, and second of all, the literal answer to that question really isn’t relevant for the average consumer. Let me explain….
First of all, the important matter is not which solar panels are most efficient, but which solar panels are the best value for the money. If you’ve got space for 10 solar panels on your roof and you have an option between solar panels “ABEfficient” that are a bit more efficient but twice the price of solar panels “CDCheap,” chances are, you are going to make a much bigger savings by going with CDCheap. Of course, the important thing would be to see what’s available in your situation and simply run the numbers (or, if you are allergic to math, have a friend who can do math run the numbers for you).
But, anyway, if you really want to know which are the most efficient solar panels (or solar cells) out there, I actually happened to be putting together a list of solar records recently and can give you the rundown. But, as I do so, I’ll drop in a few key notes making the point above a bit clearer. Before looking at solar panels as a whole, let’s have a quick look at the producers of some of the most efficient solar cells (the key component of solar panels) and their efficiency records:
- 44.7% efficient solar cells by Fraunhofer. Notably, these world-leading solar cells from Fraunhofer are in the concentrator triple-junction solar cell category. Such solar cells are complicated and are not used in residential or commercial applications… because they are bloody expensive. They are used in space applications by the likes of NASA, where a bit of extra space (or, as it may be, less space via extra efficiency) can make a huge difference.
- 37.9% efficient solar cells by Sharp. Just a step down, these are in the triple-junction, non-concentrator solar cell category. If this is all new to you, it might take you awhile to see the difference in the categories. The difference is that these solar cells don’t use anything to concentrate the light hitting the solar cells, while the 44.7% efficiency cells above do use something to concentrate the light (of course, adding to their costs).
- 32.6% solar cells by a Spanish solar research institute (IES) and university (UPM). These are another step down, as they are in the two-junction, concentrator solar cell category. (For an intro on “junctions,” by the way, check out this multi-junction photovoltaic cell article on Wikipedia.) Again, these are still far different solar cells from what are used in commercial or residential installations.
- There are about a dozen or so extra categories that I could run down. Some categories have very high efficiencies but the solar cells are quite expensive, while others are actually on the other end of the spectrum (no pun intended) and are very cheap but have very low efficiency. Of course, some are both inefficient and expensive, but apparently worth researching nonetheless. The key, as I noted earlier, is finding the best balance between cost and efficiency.
Now, there’s less research on solar panels than on solar cells because the core of the technology is the solar cell, so that’s what researchers at many institutes and universities spend their time on. No one is even going to try to manufacture a solar panel that won’t sell because it isn’t made of marketable solar cells. Still, there are many different types of solar panels (more accurately known as solar modules) on the market and many, many manufacturers of some of the most common types. So let’s look at the leaders in this category.
Why didn’t I start with the solar modules? Because then it would be easier to miss the point, which is that solar panel efficiency is not the metric you use to choose solar panels for you home. Levelized cost or IRR would be a better figure to focus on.
Getting on to the solar modules, here are the most efficient solar modules in a few key categories:
- 36% efficient Amonix solar modules hold the overall solar PV module efficiency record. However, these are made with concentrator solar cells and are not used in residential applications.
- 21.5% SunPower solar modules hold the commercial solar module efficiency record. SunPower’s SPR-327NE-WHT-D modules are also the leading solar modules in solar module yield field tests, and other SunPower solar modules come in #2 and #3 in those tests. (For those of you to who this matters or is interesting, SunPower is a US-based solar panel company.)
- 17.4% Q-Cells thin-film solar modules hold the record in this specific solar panel category. Thin-film solar panels are widely used, but not in residential applications. (Q-Cells was a German company, but it filed for insolvency in 2012 and was then acquired by the Korean company Hanwha.)
- 16.1% First Solar thin-film solar modules claim the cadmium-telluride (CdTe) photovoltaic (PV) module conversion efficiency record. Again, these are generally not used for residential applications, but I think including them helps to reinforce my key point yet again. (First Solar, a US-based company, was actually the #1 solar developer and the #2 solar module manufacturer in the world last year. Despite a relatively low 16.1% record efficiency in this category of solar panels, First Solar does very well with these relatively cheap solar modules in certain applications.)
- Just as one final example in order to show that the variation doesn’t stop there, 15.5% solar modules from MiaSolé hold the flexible PV solar module efficiency record. Naturally, in some applications, one doesn’t just need solar panels, one needs flexiblesolar panels. The can be the solution of choice for a mobile home or RV, but it's important to consider that if you're using them to power an A/C and cool your RV, chances are the black film on your roof is heating the RV too! OH NO! So it's important to put an air gap between the panels and the roof of the RV to keep heat from coming inside and counteracting the generation of electricity.
The takeaway point is:
Skip the focus on hypotheticals and irrelevant superlatives. Forget about what the “most efficient solar panels” are. There are many local providers, each in a different region, and many who ship and delivery product. Recently some terrific companies have pulled together the opportunities and helped to reduce costs.
The Powur Provider Network of solar companies is directly connected to Solar installers in about half of U.S. States, and is growing day by day. They are able to refer vetted Solar companies in many regions throughout the country and even offer customers multiple quotes in their region by multiple providers. This gives you a one-stop-shop quoting system with a representative to guide you through the process!
The Solar Buyers Club is not only growing a nationwide clean-energy installation network, but through volume purchasing and a no commision sales-rep business model, is able to offer some of the best pricing we've seen yet, often coming in with payments at 25-50% of the original electric bill! They offer nationwide shipping of kits for self installation, with installation assist, or with full-blown installations!
See what they quote you. Ask them what solar panels they would use if you want to know, and compare your options to your heart’s content. Don’t go trying to find solar panels that were designed for NASA satellites. You won't be happy with the price!
So in a nutshell, these two simple solutions can meet the needs of most purchasers in the U.S, and they are changing the way people think about electricity.
By the way, the following chart from NREL isn’t fully up to date (solar efficiency records are broken quite frequently), but it gives you a good sense of the large variety of solar technologies:
Zachary Shahan is the director of CleanTechnica, the most popular cleantech-focused website in the world, and Planetsave, a world-leading green and science news site. He has been covering green news of various sorts since 2008, and he has been especially focused on solar energy, electric vehicles, and wind energy for the past four years or so. Aside from his work on CleanTechnica and Planetsave, he's the Network Manager for their parent organization – Important Media – and he's the Owner/Founder of Solar Love, EV Obsession, and Bikocity. To connect with Zach on some of your favorite social networks, go to ZacharyShahan.com and click on the relevant buttons.
Read more at http://cleantechnica.com