Thin Film vs. Silicon Solar Panels: What’s the Difference?

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Thin Film vs. Silicon Solar Panels: What’s the Difference?

Undoubtedly, people want the most efficient, low-cost energy solutions when it comes to sourcing power for both home solar installation and commercial solar installations

With that said, solar power is one of the most viable and responsible ways to generate electricity from clean energy. It’s also the most abundant of all energy sources and the third most-used renewable energy option in the world. 

And the solar industry is growing quickly, thanks to serious advancements in solar panel technology. Currently, there are two popular types of panels: thin film solar cells and crystalline silicon (c-Si) modules. 

But what exactly is the difference between thin film and silicon for solar panels? Let’s explore that alongside their advantages and environmental considerations. 

[Related: A Beginner’s Guide to Solar Panels]

Crystalline Silicon Solar Panels 

Crystalline silicon solar panels fall under two categories: monocrystalline and polycrystalline solar cells. Both rely on very thin layers of silicon in solar panels (as well as other rare materials) to absorb sunlight.

Monocrystalline Solar Panels 

First, monocrystalline silicon solar panels are more efficient than their polycrystalline counterpart. They also offer a higher-rated performance in hot weather conditions. At peak performance, monocrystalline panels rate between 14% and 18%

However, monocrystalline panels aren’t the cheapest — they’re actually the most expensive to create. But their efficiency is stellar. 

Polycrystalline Solar Panels

Next, polycrystalline silicon solar panels are less efficient than monocrystalline silicon solar panels, but only slightly so. However, they’re cheaper and less wasteful during the manufacturing process. Polycrystalline silicon panels rank at around 13% to 16% efficiency.

Note: “Solar panel efficiency” refers to the amount of absorbed sunlight that panels convert into electrical energy via photovoltaic (PV) cells (also known as solar cells). These PV cells make up the modules within solar panels. 

Thin Film Solar Cells 

Typically, people use thin film solar panels less commonly than silicon solar panels, but we should consider them nonetheless!

They require far less silicon during the manufacturing process and are gradually becoming more popular. In fact, they may eventually edge out c-Si as the panel of choice. 

Here are the three types of thin film solar panels.

Cadmium Telluride 

Cadmium telluride (CdTe) is the most popular type of thin film solar panel — and the second most popular solar panel type overall. Cadmium telluride thin film solar panels are easy to install, generally aren’t pricey and have seen regular technological improvements.

Their highest reported efficiency rating is 22.1%

Amorphous Silicon  

Meanwhile, amorphous silicon (a-Si) is the second most popular thin film solar panel type. 

Manufacturers typically use amorphous silicon cells for small-scale electronics (such as solar-powered watches and speakers) rather than in large-scale projects on a home, business or major industrial site. 

On average, a-Si panels have an efficiency between 5.9% and 9%. But they can certainly reach above 13% in some cases.


This type of thin film solar panel is made of single crystal cells that manufacturers can stack with other thin film solar cells. And doing so increases light absorption substantially! Perovskite and silicon together reach very high solar panel efficiency levels at 29.8%. And single junction perovskite efficiency rating is $25.7

[Related: How Do Solar Panels Work?]

Advantages of Thin Film and Crystalline Silicon Solar Panels

Let’s explore the top perks of thin film and crystalline silicon solar panels. 

Advantages of Thin Film

The main benefit of flexible thin film solar panels is that they produce more usable energy per watt than standard silicon panels.

They’re also cheaper to produce than crystalline silicon solar panels because they replace the silicon with various other materials, such as indium and cadmium.

Thin film panels are also much larger than silicon panels and have lower temperature coefficients, which makes them ideal for industrial use. Essentially, they can handle higher radiation levels without wearing down.

So, thin film solar panel efficiency is less than that of standard silicon panels. However, thin film solar panels have more advanced technology and cost more money. 

Advantages of Crystalline

Both monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels have several advantages. For example, they’re more durable (which contributes to a longer average life span) and have higher efficiency ratings than the other thin film panel types. They’re also more cost-effective and require a less strenuous manufacturing process.

What’s more, they’re more environmentally friendly because they don’t contain materials like cadmium and indium. This makes them great for use in all sectors including residential, commercial and industrial

[Related: Who Makes the Best Solar Panels?]

Environmental Considerations

When debating between thin film and crystalline solar panels, remember that thin film panels typically contain cadmium — a carcinogenic substance. 

However, cadmium mainly emits pollutants and harmful substances during the manufacturing process, not during a solar panel’s life cycle. For perspective, coal releases far more toxic emissions than thin film solar panels do during production. 

Overall, both solar panel types require less water and other resources to manufacture and generate electricity compared to nonrenewable methods. Clearly, going solar benefits the environment and public health substantially. 

Contact Freedom Solar Power

As solar technology continues to advance, thin film solar panels have the potential to surpass crystalline panels in popularity. Although crystalline silicon panels have been around longer, thin film solar panel technology is moving rapidly and will likely rival silicon panels in the near future (cost-wise, too). 

At the end of the day, choosing thin film or c-Si solar panels depends on where you’ll install them and how you want to use them. 

On that note, if you’re ready to start harnessing the sun’s energy, contact solar panel company Freedom Solar. We provide SunPower solar panels — the highest-rated solar panels on the market — and various solar home power system options. Together, we’ll make sure you have the level of energy independence you desire. 

Furthermore, SunPower features the EquinoxTM  and Helix® fully-integrated systems — made entirely of crystalline silicon — that have efficient, high energy outputs to power your home, business, or even a utility-scale plant.

To get started today, call (800) 504-2337 or complete our online inquiry form. One of our energy consultants will be in touch ASAP!

On the other hand, looking to maintain, repair or upgrade your solar system? Our solar repair and maintenance service department can help you obtain maximum energy production and efficiency.

Featured image via Unsplash

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Willie Nelson for Freedom Solar

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