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Photovoltaic Modules Primer on Costs and Sale Prices,Energy Output,Efficiency,Voltage,Types,How to Buy and Manufacturers(Canadian,Sharp,LG,Hyundai,Trina,BP,Sanyo,First Solar,Kyocera,REC,Sunpower)

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Photovoltaic Module demand has increased by more than 50% each year in the last decade as solar panel costs have gone down sharply by almost 80% in the last 4 years alone as scale and technology have improved.Photovoltaic Modules are a combination of solar cells which generate electricity when light strikes them.Photovoltaic is the name given to this process where electrons are released when photo or light transfer its energy to the solar cells.The following article covers a large amount of literature on Photovoltaic Modules from its costs to selling prices as well as the efficiency of the Photovoltaic Module which affects the Energy Output.There are hundreds of Photovoltaic Module Manufacturers but only a few major ones.There are reviews on the major Photovoltaic Module Suppliers and Market as well.

Photovoltaic Module Efficiency and Energy Output

Photovoltaic Module Efficiency varies a lot depending on the solar panel manufacturer and the technology used.The cost of the Photovoltaic Module can also vary a lot depending on the retailer,size of the solar panel,technology and the brand.This makes buying Photovoltaic Modules a confusing problem though most residential and commercial buyers are not involved leaving the decision to the solar installer/EPC company.Photovoltaic Modules Efficiency can also vary in the same brand as a company produces various solar panels aiming at different segments of the market as well as different customer needs.

Photovoltaic Modules Efficiency can be as low as 7% for amorphous silicon technology to as high as 18% for mono-crystalline silicon technology.Note some of the Photovoltaic Modules used in spacecraft have cells which have conversion factors ranging as high as 40% but those are niche applications.Photovoltaic Modules made by First Solar using the Cadmium Tellurium Technology are in the range of 11-12% while the CIGs technology which is being used to make solar panels by a number of companies like Miasole,Solyndra,TSMC and other have the range between 10-13% currently.Note Photovoltaic Modules Efficiencies are constantly increasing for all technologies each year.

Photovoltaic Modules Energy Output is around 1.4 units of electricity for 1 watt which means that an average Photovoltaic Modules of 250 Watts will give you around 350 units or 350 kwh of electricity per year.Note while Photovoltaic Modules are sold according to power ratings,the energy output is measured in power x time which is the energy.The Energy Output of the Photovoltaic Modules depends on the area where it is located since sunny areas give more energy output like deserts compared to areas with low sunlight such as UK.

Photovoltaic Module Costs and Prices

Photovoltaic Module Costs have gone drastically as companies particularly in China have reduced processing costs and prices of raw materials.The best and lowest cost suppliers of solar panels can now make solar panels for as low at 90c/watt to $1/watt.However these costs are not the benchmark as higher cost players in solar panels still make modules at $1.5-2/watt but they are rapidly disappearing.

The prices of the modules are given below.

Photovoltaic Module Manufacturers

Photovoltaic Module Types

  1. Amorphous Silicon photovoltaic modules– Amorphous Silicon (a-Si) is the smaller cousin of the Polycrystalline Solar Panels ,the main difference being the amount of silicon being used on top of the glass substrates.Amorphous Silicon uses a fraction of the Silicon that is normally used in silicon solar panels.This means that the weight and cost of the solar panel is lower however the efficiency is also much lower.Earlier this technology has a lot of backers but after Applied Materials the biggest semiconductor equipment company abandoned this technology,most a-Si companies have gone under.However some companies like Sharp,Astroenergy are still backing this technology.Oerlikon the Swiss company has made improvement like introducing tandem junction to increase the efficiency.
  2. Microcrystalline Tandem photovoltaic modules– A new generation of microcrystalline tandem photovoltaic modules with far higher efficiency than the amorphous type has been developed in the past 2-3 years.The substrate for the tandem type is identical in size to  the  substrate  for the amorphous   type.The microcrystalline tandem solar cell consists of a microcrystalline solar cell placed on top of a conventional amorphous solar cell.Companies like Sharp,Mitsubishi are selling such types of solar panels in the 50-150 Watt range.
  3. Polycrystalline Silicon photovoltaic modules – Polycrystalline photovoltaic modules are the most used photovoltaic modules on the planet.These Solar Panels are made out of Polycrystalline silicon which can be as much as 99.9999% pure (also known as 4N pure,the 4 denotes the number of 9s after the decimal point).Polysilicon was primarily used by the semi industry till 5-6 years ago and the electronic industry used 9N pure polysilicon.These panels have an efficiency of between 13%-17% depending on the quality of the Solar Cells being used.When you go out to buy normal solar panels,this is the solar panel that you will typically get from your solar panel retailer.Note they are available in a wide variety of power ratings going from as low as 5 watts to 250 watts or more.Its possible to buy very cheap Polycrystalline photovoltaic modules  due to the Solar Oversupply in the market.
  4. Monocrystalline Silicon photovoltaic modules – Monocrystalline Silicon photovoltaic modules give the highest efficiency and have the highest costs of production as well.During Polysilicon Manufacturing,its possible to grow pure silicon made of a single crystal.The photovoltaic modules made out of this single crystal of pure silicon is called monocrystalline photovoltaic modules.Solar Cells Efficiency can vary from 18% to 24% for the normal monocrystalline silicon technology.Sunpower makes the highest efficiency crystalline solar cells on a commercial scale.Sanyo is the other company which makes the most efficient Monocrystalline cells .Suniva is challenging the two with a low cost process for making high efficiency monocrystalline solar cells.

Non Silicon photovoltaic modules

  1. Cadmium Tellurium (Cd-Te) photovoltaic modules–  These solar panels are produced by the largest solar panel selling company First Solar.Other companies like GE and Abound Solar are also trying to produce solar panels using this technology.While concerns were raised about usage of Cadmium which is toxic,NREL has verified that the Cd-Te compound does not pose any danger to humans and environment.Note Cd-Te Solar Panels are cheaper than silicon solar panels as they have lower efficiency (which means they need more area to generate the same amount of electricity).These types of solar panels were earlier used mostly in ground mounted solar farms.However with increasing efficiency they are being sold for installation of residential and commercial rooftops (FS-3) as well.This technology has around 12% efficiency  though GE has said that it has managed to attain 15% efficiency on commercial glass.Don’t know how much of it is true since First Solar only manages around 12% efficiency despite around 10 years of dedicated R&D.
  2. Copper Indium Gallium Diselenide (CIGs) photovoltaic modules–  This Thin Film Technology has the highest Solar Cell Efficiency and a number of established companies like TSMC,Q-Cells,Honda and startups like Miasole,Nanosolar,Solyndra are using this technology.However its production is not easy as four different materials are used.Miasole has been claiming to have achieved an efficiency of 13.8%.General range is between 11-14%.Note Solar Shingles being sold by Dow and Uni Solar also use this technology as its weight is much lower than normal silicon solar panels.CIGs Technology is also used in making flexible thin solar panels which can be used for camping,BIPV and other applications where weight is an issue.

Other types of photovoltaic modules which are in niche production are organic solar panels made by Dyesol,Copper Zinc Tin Sulfure Selenium (CZTS) photovoltaic modules being developed by Solar Frontier-IBM,Multijunction Solar Cell Panels developed by Emcore,Boeing and others.

Photovoltaic Module Voltage,Current and Power

PV Modules are available in such a wide variety of power ratings that it can confuse a layman on what size of solar panel to buy for his home use.For small uses like charging a iPod or a laptop a small 5-20 Watt PV Modules will do.However if you want to use solar energy to power your house you would need higher power PV Modules with ratings of 150-250 watts.If you have a smaller rooftop area then you would need to invest in higher rating and higher efficiency monocrystalline solar panels.There are also PV Modules which come in different  colors like Black PV Modules from Sunpower.You also have to take into account the weight that your roof can take.If it can take only a small weight then you may need to buy amorphous silicon or CIGs PV Modules which have high efficiency to weight ratios.

PV Modules come in a number of voltages as well with the most commonly used solar panels of 250 Watts having around 30 Volts.Note one solar cell generally gives between 2-4 Watts of power depending whether its a 5 inch wafer or 6 inch solar wafer from which it is made of.Each solar cells has around 0.5 Volts which when connected in series of 50-60 cells gives around 25-30 volts of electricity.

The most commonly used solar panels come under 5 watts,20 Watts ,50 watts,100 watts,150 watts,200 watts,240 watts.

Photovoltaic Module Manufacturers

LG Photovoltaic Modules

LG the South Korean Electronics and Chemicals Giant recently got into the crystalline silicon solar panel manufacturing business along with a number of other Korean Conglomerates like Hyundai and Samsung.The LG Group is producing solar products through two Group Companies. LG Solar Energy was formed in 2007 to produce polysilicon which is the most important raw material  for the production of solar wafers.It is already selling solar modules in the South Korean and European markets and plans to  rapidly expand capacity to One Gigawatt by 2012.LG sells  both Monocrystalline and Multicrystalline Solar Panels in 220-260 Watts Range.The company sells blue and black solar panels in European Union and Asia which it  will expand to the other parts of the world.LG Solar Panel Prices are also quite cheap compared to other top Japanese and European Solar Brands.LG sells solar panels price in the $1.5/watt range compared to the $2.-2.5/watt range kept by the other developed solar panel producers.You can read about the entire range of LG Solar Panel Products.

BP Photovoltaic Modules

British Petroleum (BP) the multi billion dollar Oil and Gas Conglomerate is a strange player in the Renewable Energy Sector of Solar Energy.BP was a dominant company amongst the top 10 global manufacturers of solar panels till a few years ago.However the lack of interest on the part of management,low investment,lack of R&D has made it a bit player in the fast growing solar panel market.Companies which did not exist till a few years ago have outpaced BP to become top solar panel producers.However BP Solar Panels continue to sell in a number of market because of existing sales relationships and brand name.However it is only uneducated and uninformed consumers who are buying BP Solar Panels in my opinion.BP Solar Panels should be avoided both from an economic point of view and from the environment perspective.

First Solar Photovoltaic Modules

First Solar is going to the biggest producer of solar panels in the world despite having a solar panel technology which differs from almost all of its competitors.First Solar Solar Panels use Cadmium-Tellurium Thin Film Solar Technology while the majority of the Solar Industry uses Crystalline Silicon Technology.First Solar Panels are now rated at an efficiency of 12 percent which in layman terms implies that if 100 units of solar energy strikes a First Solar Solar Module then on an average 12 units of solar electricity will be produced.First Solar Panels are not generally sold to residential owners and are mostly sold through trusted distributors of First Solar.

Sanyo Photovoltaic Modules

Sanyo Solar is one the biggest Japanese solar companies along with Sharp,Kyocera and Mitsubishi.After Panasonic bought Sanyo,the emphasis on the renewable energy green division has been increased by Panasonic.Sanyo Sells PV Solar Panels under the HIT Brand which is derived from the Technology it uses.The HIT Solar Panels from Sanyo are one of the highest efficiency solar panels available on the market today.Sanyo sells most of its Solar Panels in the 180-220 Watts Range unlike other panel makers which have made 240-250 Watts the standard range for their Solar Panels.Sanyo HIT Solar Panels retail for almost $3/watt which implies that you have to pay around $600 to buy a 200 watt solar panel from Sanyo.Note this price is quite high as good quality solar panels from China made by reputed players like Trina,Yingli can be bought from retail these days for as low as $1.5/watt

Sharp Photovoltaic Modules

Sharp is the biggest company in the world in terms of making revenues from sales of solar panels so it seems counterintuitive for someone to recommend not buying Sharp Solar Panels.However this Japanese Conglomerate has been losing marketshare rapidly to cheaper Asian competitors.Sharp due to its factories in high cost locations makes solar panels at a much higher cost and sells them at much higher prices as well.The reason is that they manage to sell so many solar panels is that consumers are  not educated about other better options and the other solar panel companies don’t have the distribution networks.Note Sharp has been trying to diversify away from crystalline solar panels to thin film solar panels.The reason is that they are losing the competitive advantage to Chinese companies like Trina Solar and others.

Sunpower Photovoltaic Modules

Sunpower sells the highest efficiency solar panels made from its record breaking monocrystalline solar cells which have more than 24% efficiency.Sunpower E-18 to E-20 Solar Panels – SunPower E18 to E20 Series solar panels deliver high efficiency solar technology utilizing SunPower Maxeon patented technology with back-contact solar cells.Sunpower solar panels are selling for around $2/watt to dealer.On top of this the solar panel dealers apply a 30% markup which means that you can buy it for around $3/watt.So for a 308 Watt solar panel from Sunpower you have to shell out around $900-950.

Sunpower Residential Solar Panels

  1. Sunpower E18 Series Solar Panels come in 2 variants a) Sunpower E18/230 Residential Solar Panel which gives 230 Watts and b) Sunpower E18/225 Signature Black Residential Solar Panels.This panel has a black backsheet.These have an efficiency of 18%.
  2. Sunpower E19 Series Solar Panels come in 2 variants a) Sunpower E19/240 Residential Solar Panel which gives 240 Watts with 72 solar cells  and b) Sunpower E19/320  Residential Solar Panels.It has 96 Cells .These have an efficiency of more than 19%%.

REC Photovoltaic Modules

REC is a Norwegian company which makes materials throughout the silicon supply chain from polysilicon to solar modules.The company is not a big producer and has been facing adversity due to competition from Asian companies.The company’s solar modules are of decent quality and low prices due to its shorter history in the solar panel manufacturing.You can buy solar panels which are made in Singapore at $1.2/watt

Trina Solar Photovoltaic Modules

Trina Solar is one of the lowest cost manufacturers of Solar Panels in the World right now and also sells it at a very low price.This is the reason that the company in a span of few short years has managed to acquire a substantial  global marketshare.The prices the solar panels being sold are around $340 per 200 watt module.Trina Solar.Like Yingli and Suntech,Trina Solar Panels are one the best quality in China

Suntech Photovoltaic Modules

Suntech was  the world’s biggest producer of solar panels in 2010 and was one the first companies to set up operations in China.Its example was followed by a host of other Chinese companies.Suntech has been slow to expand compared to the fast growing small companies in China and has lost marketshare to them.It has started to vertically integrate in order to meet the low cost challenge from Trina and Yingli.Suntech makes one of the best quality Solar Panels in China.

Canadian Solar Photovoltaic Modules

The Company sells a wide variety of solar panels unlike other producers.The Solar Panel Selling Price is also quite cheap.The Company is headquartered in Canada with factories in China and Ontario.Canadian Solar is the 5th biggest producer of Solar Panels in China.

Kyocera Photovoltaic Modules

Kyocera is one of the oldest solar panel manufacturers and is second only to Sharp amongst the Japanese companies.Kyocera Solar Corp. in Japan was founded in 1996, and Kyocera Solar, Inc. in the U.S. in 1999.The company has production bases in Japan, Mexico, Europe and China and is planning a factory in California as well.The company plans to reach 1000 MW of production by 2013.The Kyocera 135 Watt Panels cost around $300 which makes it a costly solar panel to buy given that you can buy the cheapest solar panel at $1/watt if you buy in large bulks of 5000 solar panels.

Hyundai Photovoltaic Modules

Hyundai has already established a  600 MW Solar Cell and Solar Panel Factory making it the  largest South Korean manufacturer.Hyundai Solar Panels are not widely available and they don’t have a big difference from other solar panel brands.They seem priced high at $2.5/watt in some places though I think in bulk orders you can get solar panels at much lower prices given that you can buy the cheapest solar panel from China at only $1/watt and even quality Japanese and European solar panels for $1.8-2/watt.Hyundai Gives a Standard Product Warranty of 5 years and Performance Warranty of 25 years which is the standard warranty given by most solar panel manufacturers in the industry.Hyundai mostly sells Solar Panels in the above 200 Watt range with 250 Watt Solar Panels being the popular make.Hyundai’s HiS-S250MG monocrystalline solar panels with 19 kgs weight and aluminum frame is the most popular panel.


Abhishek Shah

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