Solar energy is the most popular choice for clean and sustainable electricity generation. Two important components in these power systems are solar cells and solar panels. Although these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they have distinct roles. In this discussion, we will explore differences solar cell vs solar panel and compare their efficiencies.
Solar Cell Vs Solar Panel – What’s the Difference?
A solar cell is also known as a photovoltaic (PV) cell. It is an important electronic component of a solar energy system that produces electricity when sunlight or photons, strike the collector. It is typically designed with monocrystalline or polycrystalline materials, where multiple layers are present inside it. When sunlight hits the semiconductors, the loose electrons get released, enabling electric current to flow inside the small circuit. This current is then carried by a conductor to power electrical devices, forming a simple and efficient method of electricity generation.
A solar panel or photovoltaic module is a collection of multiple solar cells assembled in a frame. The primary function of the solar panel is to harness and use the electricity generated by individual solar cells. Here the solar panel combines several solar cells, which are connected in series and parallel circuits, to form a solar module. This solar module is enclosed within a protective casing to shield the solar cells and wiring from extreme weather conditions. In this way, the solar panels protect, amplify and direct the energy produced by the solar cell modules.
To further understand the solar cell vs solar panel differences take a look below:
1. Primary Function
Solar cells convert sunlight or photon particles into electric energy. So, are solar cells the same as solar panels? Well, solar panels contain multiple solar cells that collect and combine the electricity generated by each cell.
Solar cells are available in two types – monocrystalline and multi-crystalline. They come in various sizes, thicknesses, and shapes, typically square or pseudo-square. The common sizes available in the market are 125mm or 156mm, and they vary in thickness from 150 microns to 300 microns. Solar cells are basically PN junction diodes specially designed to maximize the photovoltaic effect. It consists of an N-type semiconductor layer on top and a thicker P-type semiconductor layer at the bottom. Here metal rings serve as electrodes to complete the circuit.
So, is a solar panel a cell? Let’s find out. Since solar cells are delicate components and produce a small amount of electricity, these are not directly used by consumers. They are converted into a usable form called a solar panel or module. Solar panels consist of multiple layers. It consists of an anodized aluminum frame, highly transparent tempered glass, encapsulant materials, photovoltaic solar cells, and an insulating back sheet. Here, the solar-toughened glass comes first, followed by the interconnected solar cells, encapsulant layer (formed with EVA, PVB, or TPU), and the insulating back sheet. The construction is protected by an aluminum frame and includes a junction box for power output. These materials are processed to create a complete solar panel.
3. Electricity Generation and Distribution
A single solar cell generates a small amount of electricity, but solar panels have the ability to generate kilowatts of electric power. To do so, solar panels collect electricity from multiple cells and transmit it to the inverter, which then distributes it for specific uses. This is necessary because solar cells produce direct current (DC), but nowadays the appliances you use at home require AC power. So, to power your devices, you need to connect an inverter to your solar array system. The inverter basically converts the DC power into AC power, making it compatible with the devices you use at home.
4. Output Voltage
In the comparison of solar cell vs solar panel, these cells typically have a voltage output of around 0.5V to 0.6V, whereas solar panels offer higher voltage outputs like 12V, 15V, 30V, and 36V. These depend on the number of solar cells used. Note that the number of solar cells incorporated in a panel can vary with some factors. These include the brand and panel size, with common options ranging from 32 to 96 cells. Typically, the voltage output of a solar panel can be adjusted by varying the number of solar cells used. If you can arrange multiple solar cells within a panel, you can meet the higher electricity production needed for your specific energy demands. However, to supply power to an entire house, you need a solar array, a group of solar panels. The right number of panels again depends on your energy requirements.
Is a Solar Panel a Cell? Are Solar Cells the Same as Solar Panels?
A solar cell is an electrical device that changes its characteristics, such as current, voltage, or resistance when exposed to light. It serves as a building block for photovoltaic modules, also known as solar panels. So, no, a solar panel is not a solar cell.
In contrast, a solar panel is an assembly of multiple solar cells connected in series and parallel. It collects solar or photonic energy and converts it into electrical energy through the photovoltaic effect. The solar cells in a panel are arranged in a grid-like pattern on the panel’s surface.
Also See: What is Flat Plate Photovoltaic (PV)?
Solar Cell Vs Solar Module – Are They Same?
No, they are not. Solar modules are composed of small electronic devices called solar cells. These photovoltaic cells use the photovoltaic effect to convert light energy into limited electrical energy. By connecting multiple cells, you can adjust the power output based on your needs and accordingly create a module or panel. However, when you combine several modules or panels, it forms a solar array that can generate energy in kilowatts. The number of solar cells in a module depends on its intended use. To create a module for a 12-volt battery, should consist of 36 cells, whereas residential systems utilize modules with 60 cells. In larger commercial systems, you have to choose modules with 72 cells. Now you must have understood solar cell vs solar module and their unique differences and similarities.
What is Solar Cell Efficiency Vs Solar Panel Efficiency?
You have already learned the comparison of solar cell vs solar panel. Now, it is critical to compare solar cell efficiency vs solar panel efficiency. Well, the efficiency of a single cell and that of a panel (module) is different. While the average solar panel efficiency is around 15 to 20%, solar cell efficiency can exceed 42% in a few cases. The performance of a solar cell is typically evaluated in a laboratory setting. However, the laboratory conditions may not reflect real-world performance for residential consumers.
The efficiency of the different types of solar panels is given below:
- Monocrystalline solar panels have the highest efficiency ranging from 22 to 27%. They have a rounded edge and a dark color.
- On the other hand, polycrystalline solar panels are made from blocks of crystals, and have slightly lower efficiency, typically between 15 to 22%.
- Thin film solar panels are lightweight and flexible. Although they have a lower efficiency of around 15 to 22%, they are gaining popularity in large-scale projects and solar power plants due to their decreasing efficiency gap and easier production process. However, thin film panels are known to degrade faster compared to the other types.
Do Solar Cells Use Batteries to Store Excess Energy?
There are two kinds of solar batteries mostly used – lithium-ion and lead-acid. Lithium-ion batteries are the preferred choice for solar panel manufacturers because they can store more energy. They have the ability to retain energy longer than other batteries and have a higher Depth of Discharge.
Moreover, if you want your solar PV system to continue operating during a power outage, you will need a battery to store energy for later use. So, do solar cells use batteries? Well, solar cells do not need batteries to store energy, but, in a way, solar panels can be used in conjunction with batteries to store excess electricity.
To summarize, PV cells are the basic units that directly convert sunlight into electricity, while solar panels are collections of cells that generate higher electric power. Understanding solar cell vs solar panel efficiency is important for implementing renewable energy solutions effectively.