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What are solar panels made of?

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    Around 95% of solar panels on the market are made of silicon. One of the reasons silicon is a popular choice is that it’s one of the most plentiful materials available and affordable to create.

    Silicon is just the main component, though. Solar panels also consist of components made from metal, glass and other materials. All of these parts work together to take energy created by sunlight and turn it into usable energy for your home.

    Key insights:

    • Most solar panels are made of cells with silicon crystals that create an electric field.
    • Solar panels are placed into categories depending on what type of silicon they consist of and how they are constructed.
    • Solar panels use an inverter to change the DC power created by the panels into AC power your home’s appliances can use.

    Solar panel components

    Solar panels are a lot like a sandwich. You start with the bottom layer, which is a polymer material. Then, cells are added to the panel. The cells are made with a positively charged layer of silicon and a negatively charged layer to create an electric field.

    The cells are then joined together with wire to make one big piece on top of the polymer material. A layer of glass tops off the sandwich.

    After the panel is done, a junction box and wiring are added to the solar panel. Finally, everything is put into a frame, and the mounting assembly is attached.

    Panels are separated into categories depending on the way the silicon is used:

    • Monocrystalline solar panels: These use a single silicon crystal for each cell. These are the most efficient type of panels but usually cost more.
    • Polycrystalline solar panels: Made from multiple silicon crystals in each cell, these panels are cheaper because they are easier to produce. They are a little less efficient than monocrystalline panels, though.
    • Thin-film solar panels: These inexpensive panels are made from layers of silicon. They are lightweight and typically used for smaller solar projects, not whole-home usage.

    Solar panels are divided into two subclassifications due to how they are constructed.

    • PERC: PERC solar panels are monocrystalline or polycrystalline panels with a layer of material on the back of the silicon that bounces sunlight back through the panel to make it more efficient.
    • Bifacial: Bifacial panels are mounted laterally and have solar cells on both sides. Think of this panel like two back-to-back sandwiches.

    » LEARN MORE: Types of solar panels

    How solar panels work

    Solar panels collect radiation from the sun and turn it into energy your home can use. The cells in the panel absorb the light, and the energy created by the light interacting with the electric fields from the cells is converted from DC to AC using a solar inverter.

    From there, it’s pumped into your home’s electric system or stored in a solar battery. You can learn more about the process by checking out our guide on how solar energy is made.

    » DISCOVER: How is solar energy stored?

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      How much do solar panels cost?

      Solar panels cost around $17,430 to $23,870 ($3 to $5 per watt) after federal tax credits.

      » LEARN MORE: How does the federal solar tax credit work?

      Where do materials for solar panels come from?

      The major material, silicone, is made from sand melted at high heat. Metals that are used to make the panels, such as indium, cadmium, germanium, gallium, tellurium and selenium, are byproducts of the production of other metals.

      How long do solar panels last?

      Solar panels can last 25 years or more. Even after 25 years, most can still produce 80% of the power they could produce when they were brand new.

      ConsumerAffairs writers primarily rely on government data, industry experts and original research from other reputable publications to inform their work. Specific sources for this article include:
      1. U.S. Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, “Solar Photovoltaic Manufacturing Basics.” Accessed June 19, 2023.
      2. U. S. Department of Energy, "Homeowner’s Guide to Going Solar." Accessed June 19, 2023.
      3. Center for Sustainable Energy, “How much does a typical residential solar electric system cost?” Accessed June 19, 2023.
      4. American Solar Energy Society, “Monocrystalline vs Polycrystalline Solar Panels.” Accessed June 19, 2023.
      5. U.S. Department of Interior, “Byproduct Mineral Commodities Used for the Production of Photovoltaic Cells.” Accessed June 19, 2023.
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