PV Module Selection

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Typical PV array
A typical PV array.
SunPower PV module
Currently, SunPower offers PV modules with the highest efficiencies (W/ft.2). But unless array space is tight, efficiency isn’t always the most important criterion.
Frameless Lumos Solar array
Frameless glass-on-glass PV modules, seen in this Lumos Solar array, can look almost seamless.
SolarWorld array
Black frames and black back-sheets, like on these SolarWorld modules, can provide a more uniform appearance, but absorb more heat, which causes a slight decrease in efficiency due to increased temperature.
Silicon Energy transluscent modules
Clear glass backing in these Silicon Energy modules allows light to pass between the cells, making them desirable for shade structures.
Online module monitoring
Buying modules from long-term manufacturers with a good track record can be a hedge against poor quality, but the only way to spot individual module performance issues is with module-level monitoring.
Itek U.S.-made module
Advantages to U.S.-made PV modules include less embodied energy for transport; supporting the national economy; and, sometimes, as in the case of these Washington-made Itek Energy modules, additional state-sponsored financial incentives.
Spice Solar railless mounting
Some PV modules offer a rail-free mounting option. These modules are compatible with Spice Solar’s built-in racking system.
UpSolar module with DC optimizer
UpSolar’s “smart module” integrated SolarEdge DC optimizer reduces installation time compared to using separate MPPT optimizer units.
TrinaSmart module
Trina Solar’s TrinaSmart modules offer Tigo Energy’s module-level MPPT optimization and individual module monitoring.
DIY solar installers
If you have electrical and carpentry skills, you can potentially save a lot of money by installing a PV system yourself.
dsireusa.org screenshot
Visit dsireusa.org to see which states and localities offer solar access protection.
Awning-mounted array
Small rooftops may require using high-efficiency modules to meet your energy production goals. Poor rooftop orientation or convoluted shapes may necessitate a ground-, pole-, or awning-mounted system.
Professional PV installer at work
Professional installers may put a product’s reliability at the top of their module selection criteria in an effort to reduce warranty callbacks.
Typical PV array
SunPower PV module
Frameless Lumos Solar array
SolarWorld array
Silicon Energy transluscent modules
Online module monitoring
Itek U.S.-made module
Spice Solar railless mounting
UpSolar module with DC optimizer
TrinaSmart module
DIY solar installers
dsireusa.org screenshot
Awning-mounted array
Professional PV installer at work

Whether you are a homeowner wanting to install your own PV system or a professional installer, one challenge will be choosing, among hundreds of options, which module will be the best fit.

Selecting modules requires an understanding of module attributes and specifications. Once you are familiar with those, the job becomes ranking modules based on your criteria. You will find that the most important module characteristics depend on the site and your system goals.

This article discusses the top module considerations: module efficiency, price, aesthetics, reliability, manufacturing location, and integrated features. Then, we consider some common scenarios and how module attributes fit them.

Module Characteristics

Efficiency

Module efficiency is a function of power output per square foot (W/ft.2). The higher this value, the more energy a specific footprint can produce. Module outputs range from about 11 to 19 watts per square foot. For example, let’s say the usable shade-free area on your rooftop measures 240 square feet (20 by 12 feet). Using modules that produce 15 W per square foot yields a 3.6 kW array.

Module dimensions also come into play when determining actual array wattage. Common 60-cell modules are about 65 by 39 inches wide. For our example, we could fit two rows of six modules in a portrait configuration. If the module wattage is 265 watts (with an efficiency of about 15 W/ft.2), our array will be 3.18 kW.

Price

Module price is a factor for most folks. The good news is that module prices have dropped dramatically over the last few years. In 2008, modules were approximately $4 per watt; it is now common to find them for less than $1 per watt. Total system costs followed the same trend—in 2008, they hovered around $8 per watt; now, the average cost is less than $4 per watt (before incentives; assuming professional installation).

Once you factor in any local incentives and the 30% uncapped residential federal tax credit (currently set to expire at the end of 2016), it is no wonder we are seeing so much growth in the PV industry. In fact, in the first quarter of 2014, 74% of new electrical generation in the United States came from solar. Residential PV installations exceeded commercial installations for the first time since 2002, and more than one-third of the residential PV systems came online without any state incentives.

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