Although the term “solar panel” is widely used, it is very general: there are many ways to manufacture a photovoltaic device. Like in any engineering decision, each option has advantages and disadvantages.
Assuming a project offers favorable conditions for the three types of solar panels, there is also a subjective factor: some clients may prefer the uniform look of thin-film modules, while others may opt for the reticulated appearance of silicon solar cells. Crystalline silicon modules account for over 90% of the global market.
Based on model and manufacturer, solar panels differ in their conversion efficiency from sunlight to electricity. In general, monocrystalline modules are the most efficient, followed by polycrystalline modules, while thin-film modules are in third place. Note that you may find exceptions; for example, the most efficient thin-film modules outclass some of the less efficient crystalline modules.
Pricing follows the same order as efficiency, where monocrystalline modules are the most expensive and thin-film modules are the cheapest. However the difference has become less drastic, as photovoltaic technology in general has dropped in price.
When dealing with solar panels, efficiency is valuable when you are limited in terms of space: with high-efficiency modules, you can get more watts from each square metre of area available. For a given system capacity, an array of monocrystalline modules is the most compact, while one composed of thin-film modules is the largest. For this reason, crystalline silicon modules tend to be a better option than thin-film modules in residential applications.
If you have limited area for the project and want to maximise energy output, monocrystalline modules offer the most watts per square metre. The most area-efficient solar array is one using monocrystalline modules and solar tracking, but this configuration is also among the most expensive.
Although all solar modules suffer a reduction of their power output with higher temperature, the effect varies depending on the type of panel. Most crystalline silicon modules lose over 0.40% of their output for each °C of temperature increase, while thin-film modules only lose around 0.25% per °C. Thin-film modules are promising for solar farms in deserts, since space is not a limitation and they are less affected by heat.
Crystalline silicon modules are rigid, making them suitable for applications where they will remain in the same place throughout their service life. On the other hand, many thin-film photovoltaic compounds can be used on flexible or curved surfaces, which may lead to interesting applications in moving equipment or even clothing.
There are many types of solar panels, and the best option changes depending on the application. Thin-film solar modules can be practical when space is abundant and temperature is high, while crystalline silicon modules are recommended when you want to maximise the energy output per square metre.