Photovoltaic Cells: Pros and Cons of Crystalline and Thin Film Solar Panels

It’s the PV Cell Title Fight of the Century!

If you’ve done any sleuthing into solar energy, you know there are several types of solar photovoltaic cells (PV cells) now available to consumers.

“Photovoltaic” means the cell turns the sun’s energy into electricity.

But what’s best for your needs? Whether you own a home, business, or farm, the type of panels you install depends on your own priorities, the specific features of your land, and your cost limits.

This article will help you compare crystalline and thin film photovoltaic cells – the two main categories of PV cells on the market today.

The Main Event: Two Types of PV Cells

In One Corner: Crystalline Silicon (c-Si)

Crystalline silicon solar panels have two varieties – mono-crystalline and polycrystalline (also known as multi-crystalline). These are actual silicon crystals that convert solar energy into electric power – a process that happens naturally for certain materials. How it works is, the sun’s energy frees electrons and gives them the ability to travel through circuits. For a full explanation of solar power at a 6th grade science level – of how solar energy works, go here. Very fun stuff!

PV cells create what’s called DC power – direct current. Most home appliances use AC power – alternating current. To bridge this gap, you need an inverter as part of your solar installation.

mono-crystalline silicon photovoltaic cells – most efficient and most expensive type

Monocrystalline solar panel

You’ve probably seen crystalline panels in photos since they’re the most common variety in use. Coastal Solar installs both types – mono and polycrystalline.

You can identify them by the layout of the cells. See the photos here.

Mono-crystalline PV cells are circular, and polycrystalline cells are rectangular. Mono-crystalline are the most efficient and highest performing solar cells on the market, though they are also the most expensive. They also perform better at higher temperatures than the polycrystalline ones.

polycrystalline silicon photovoltaic cells – less efficient but more affordable

Polycrystalline solar panel

Polycrystalline cells are less wasteful during the manufacturing process, and thus more affordable. Some people also consider them less “attractive,” but of course that really depends on your personal tastes.

Both types of crystalline silicon PV cells have similar advantages over thin film cells. See the PV Cell Title Fight below for 7 reasons you would choose crystalline over thin film.

In the Other Corner: Thin Film 

They’re called thin film because… they’re thinner. Originally, this was pretty similar technology and still used silicon. The most common place you’ve seen this is on solar powered calculators. That thin little window that reacts not just to sunlight, but even to indoor lights, is a thin film silicon photovoltaic cell.

Without getting too “sciencey,” the main difference is what the “light absorbing” material is mounted on. For crystalline, it’s usually some type of tempered glass, which is harder to break. For thin film, layers of the material are poured onto either plastic, metal, or glass. These layers are about 350 times thinner than the crystals used in c-Si cells.

Thin film silicon photovoltaic cells – lower cost but less efficient

Today, there are actually three viable types of thin film PV cells available. These include amorphous silicon (a-Si), cadmium telluride (CdTe), and the latest innovation, copper indium gallium deselenide (CIGS). Of these, silicon is the worst choice for larger uses. It works well for calculators and similar small uses, but not as well for larger ones.

So when we look at the advantages for each type of PV cell, we’ll also note some of the differences between these. Below you’ll find 7 reason to choose thin film PV cells over crystalline.

PV Cell Title Fight – Which One Wins?

Let’s take a look at what each type of PV cell has in its favor:

Crystalline Silicon Advantages:

In the ‘boxing’ metaphor, c-Si has a longer reach and greater stamina than thin film cells. Here’s what that means:

  1. Largest Market Share. This matters because they’re easier to find. A lot of thin film manufacturers have gone out of business too as it’s still an evolving technology.
  2. More Efficient. Estimates vary by brand and by type, but recent advances have pushed c-Si panels to over 20% efficiency. Most thin film varieties are closer to 10%, though the CIGS versions are outperforming the others and are closing the gap with crystalline. This matters because if you choose thin film, you’ll need more panels to get the same power output. If you have a smaller roof, this becomes problematic.
  3. Longer Lasting. 30 years is common, and you will see a lot of 20-25 year warranties. Some estimates say crystalline panels may well produce useful levels of electricity for up to 50 years.
  4. Minimal Power Losses. C-Si cells only lose about 1% in power output each year. Thin film is similar, but that’s after a 20% initial loss that happens the first time it’s exposed to the sun.
  5. More Resistant to Breakage. Tempered glass protects the crystalline cells and helps them withstand flying debris in a windstorm, for example. Thin film won’t work on tempered glass, and flat glass is more fragile. That said, thin film can be applied to other surfaces too, like plastic and metal, making it more durable as well.
  6. Non-toxic. One of the major reasons to use solar is to protect the environment. If you use CdTe thin film cells, you’re using a toxic material (cadmium) that is hard to dispose of safely. Crystalline silicon does not harm the earth.
  7. Sinking Costs. The costs for silicon are coming down, which makes crystalline PV cells ever more affordable.

Thin Film Advantages:

If these were boxers, thin film would be the rising star, and crystalline would be the veteran. Some rising stars flame out, and others take over. But thin film is also crafty and more versatile.

  1. Emerging Technology. The silicon variety doesn’t have as much promise, but CdTe and especially CIGS are showing big gains in the areas where crystalline PV cells have been stronger, such as efficiency and life span.
  2. Much Lower Costs. And this isn’t because of quality. It’s because thin film uses way less silicon or other material than crystalline PV cells need. This means lower manufacturing costs too. And now, new technology is replacing the glass mounting material with foil. If this proves effective, it could lower the costs so much it would be competitive with coal.
  3. Holds Up in Heat. All solar panels lose efficiency in high temperatures, but not all of them the same amount. Thin film PV withstands higher temperatures better than crystalline.
  4. Clouds Don’t Get Me Down. Obviously, solar has a hard time if there’s no sun. But have you ever used a solar calculator on a cloudy day? They work. Thin film PV arrays still function to some degree in the clouds.
  5. Don’t Mind a Little Shade. Crystalline panels can lose power if just a portion of it gets covered by a shadow. But thin film arrays keep working. That said, some crystalline PV panels now have a micro-inverter option instead of the traditional central string inverter, which can prevent this problem for c-Si panels too.
  6. Better Building Integration. Have a curved roof or wall? Thin film panels are flexible and can be integrated into the shape of your building more easily than crystalline.
  7. Lower Angle Function. Thin film panels can function at lower angles with regard to the sunlight. This means you can fit more thin film panels in the same space than you can crystalline panels. That said, since c-Si cells are more efficient, you need more thin film ones just to get the same output.

Learn more: How much do solar panels cost?

Which one wins the fight?

We Have a Winner: Crystalline Photovoltaic Cells!

Thin Film’s response? “I coulda’ been a contender. I coulda’ had tempered glass.”

Coastal Solar prefers crystalline, and we’ve installed both mono and polycrystalline photovoltaic solar panels. We like the longer life spans and high efficiency, as well as the better durability in harsh conditions.

Any good solar panel array will eventually recover its costs, so why not do that with a better performing system? Crystalline photovoltaic cells are proven technology that is saving tons of money for farms, businesses, and homeowners all across the world, and you don’t need as much roof space to benefit from going solar.

Want to talk about the solar potential of your specific location?

Contact one of our reps and have them come out and assess your property!

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