When it comes to solar panels, low cost doesn’t necessarily mean low quality. Solar panels are available at a wide variety of price points. When you’re investing in a solar energy system, it’s important to only pay for what you need and not to overpay for hype. The best solar panels for your home and budget might not have the highest efficiency, the highest rating, or the highest price, but they’ll still get the job done.
Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a renewable energy research organization, classifies solar panels into three tiers based on whether the manufacturer provided panels for at least five large-scale projects that were financed by five different banks over the past two years. Lending institutions tend to have greater confidence in projects that utilize panels produced by firms that have been in the business for more than five years, invest heavily in research and development, and have vertically integrated manufacturing processes.
As a result, most major utility-scale solar projects utilize these so-called “tier-one” panels rather than panels produced by firms that have not been in the business as long or that don’t invest much in research and development. But you could save money by opting for tier-two or tier-three panels.
A tier-two panel is produced by a small or medium-sized company that doesn’t invest much in research and development and has been in business for two to five years. A tier-three panel is produced by a firm that has been in business for less than two years and assembles solar panels but doesn’t produce its own solar cells.
But solar panels are a long-term investment, and saving on up-front costs could mean paying more later if your panels end up performing below expectations. It’s important to not only think about the quality of the panels but also about the warranties and service agreements that come with them. Will the panel manufacturer service your system if there are issues or defects? What sort of service network do they provide? How long is the warranty? Tier-two and tier-three producers will probably not be able to match a tier-one producer in these regards, even if their panels are of comparable quality.
China has long led the world in solar panel production, and there are many Chinese vendors who produce quality panels. This year, for instance, Chinese-based companies Trina Solar Limited and Yingli Green Energy were the world’s top two solar panel producers, and six of the top 10 solar panel manufacturers were Chinese. JA Solar’s annual solar panel production capacity hovers around 5.5 gigawatts; Trina Solar’s production level is closer to 6 gigawatts; and Jinko Solar’s production level is about 6.5 gigawatts. That translates to a lot of satisfied solar customers.
Chinese panels are cheaper than those produced by American companies like SunPower, Mission Solar, and so on. The affordable prices offered by JA Solar, Jinko Solar, and other Chinese manufacturers has made them the panel of choice for many homeowners and commercial projects across India, Europe, the U.S., and South Africa.
Several Chinese manufacturers have even produced tier-one panels, including the aforementioned Jinko Solar, Trina, and JA Solar. Tier-one panels from lesser-known Chinese companies like Suntech or China Sunenergy could be even cheaper than those made by their more famous Chinese competitors.
Both monocrystalline (or “mono”) and polycrystalline (or “poly”) panels are made with crystalline silicon. Monocrystalline panels have higher efficiency rates than polycrystalline panels. In other words, mono panels can turn sunlight into energy more easily than poly panels.
This higher efficiency rate makes them smaller and more expensive than polycrystalline panels of equal wattage. In a standard six-kilowatt solar system, mono panels could cost $1,000 to $2,000 more than poly panels. And if you opt for premium mono panels produced by SunPower, Panasonic, or LG Energy, you’ll likely pay even more.
However, if you’re looking for value, there’s nothing wrong with purchasing poly panels to keep your costs low. If you have enough space on your roof to add somewhat larger panels that cost less, there’s no reason to pay more for higher efficiency.
Regular panels have a silver frame, white backsheet, and may or may not have black cells. All-black panels have black frames, black cells, and black backsheets. They look modern, smart, and minimalistic. But their greater aesthetic value will cost more. If you really care about how your panels look, you might decide that you’re willing to pay more for these all-black panels. But if your panels are in the back of your home or if you’re more focused on affordability than aesthetics, you can save a pretty penny by installing regular panels.