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solar 101

The Basics

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  • Modules (Panels)

    There are 3 types of technology utilized in the solar panels available on the market today, these are monocrystalline, polycrystalline, and thin film amorphous.



    This is the oldest and most developed of the three technologies. Monocrystalline panels as the name suggests are created from a single continuous crystal structure. A Monocrystalline panel can be identified from the solar cells which all appear as a single flat color. They are made through the Czochralski method where a silicon crystal ‘seed’ is placed in a vat of molten silicon. The seed is then slowly drawn up with the molten silicon forming a solid crystal structure around the seed known as an ingot. The ingot of solid crystal silicon that is formed is then finely sliced ingot what is known as a silicon wafer. This is then made into a cell.



    Polycrystalline or Multicrystalline are a newer technology and vary in the manufacturing process. Polycrystalline also start as a silicon crystal ‘seed’ placed in a vat of molten silicon. However, rather than draw the silicon crystal seed up as with Monocrystalline the vat of silicon is simply allowed to cool. This is what forms the distinctive edges and grains in the solar cell. Polycrystalline cells were previously thought to be inferior to Monocrystalline because they were slightly less efficient, however, because of the cheaper method by which they can be produced coupled with only slightly lower efficiencies they have become the dominant technology on the residential solar panels market.

    Polycrystalline are now very close to Monocrystalline cells in terms of efficiency.


    Thin Film

    Thin film panels are a totally different technology to Mono and Polycrystalline panels. They are a new technology compared to Mono and Polycrystalline cells and would not be considered a mature technology as vast improvements in this technology are expected in the next 10 years. A thin film panel can be identified as having a solid black appearance. They may or may not have a frame, if the panel has no frame it is a thin film panel. Thin film panels are made by depositing a photovoltaic substance onto a solid surface like glass. The photovoltaic substance that is used varies and multiple combinations of substances have successfully and commercially been used.  Thin film cells have got a reputation as being the ‘worst’ of the solar panel technologies because they have the lowest efficiency. However, this is only because they have a lower power efficiency which only means they require the most space for the same amount of power.

  • Racking


    Roof Mount

    The solar array can be mounted on rooftops, generally with a few inches gap and parallel to the surface of the roof. The panels can be mounted on rails or with a rail-less mounting package. If the rooftop is flat, the array is mounted with each panel aligned at an angle. The location of the solar array determines the appropriate angle.


    Ground Mount

    When sufficient land is available, the solar array can be mounted on a free standing racking structure. This structure should be build out of aluminum and is anchored to the ground with piles. The pile are typically screw, pounded beams or ballasted concrete.


  • Inverter(s)


    Inverters convert the DC electricity from the solar panels into AC electricity. The three main inverter options are string inverters, micro-inverters, and power optimizers.


    Power Optimizers

    Power optimizers offer many of the same benefits as micro-inverters. Like micro-inverters, power optimizers are located at each panel, usually integrated into the panels themselves. However, instead of converting the DC electricity to AC electricity at the panel site, they “condition” the DC electricity and send it to a string inverter. This approach results in higher system efficiency than a string inverter alone. Similar to micro-inverters, power optimizers reduce the impact of panel shading on system performance, and also offer panel performance monitoring.


    String Inverters

    String inverters are the most cost-effective inverter option if the roof is not shaded at any point during the day and does not face in multiple directions

    The solar panels are arranged into groups connected by “strings.” Each string of panels is connected to a single inverter, which transforms the DC electricity produced by the panels into AC electricity. String inverter technology has been used for decades. It is a tried-and-true technology, but is not suitable for certain types of installations. A string of solar panels will only produce as much electricity as its least productive panel – if one or more of the solar panels is shaded during any part of the day, the power output from that entire string would be reduced to its level. For this reason, if the solar panels are installed facing different directions, a string inverter may not be a good choice. One of the most common reasons for a panel to produce less power or stop producing power altogether is shading from nearby objects. If the roof is prone to shading any time during the day or in certain seasons, either remove the source of the shade or install the panels where they will not be shaded.


    Micro Inverters

    Micro-inverters are installed on each individual panel in a solar energy system. They convert the DC electricity from the solar panels into AC electricity on the roof, with no need for a separate central inverter. In many cases the micro-inverters are integrated into the solar panel itself, but they may also be mounted next to the panel on the mounting system. One of the major advantages of micro-inverters is that they cancel out the negative impacts of partial or complete shading. The DC-AC electricity conversion takes place at each panel, there is no “bottleneck” when one panel’s production decreases.

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