The ability of a solar cell or photovoltaic (PV) material to convert a percentage of the solar energy shining on it into usable electricity is known as solar panel efficiency. One of the technological breakthroughs of photovoltaics or solar cells will depend on how to increase solar panel efficiency with reduced material costs.
So far, this technological breakthrough has been achieved partially only with regards to high solar efficiencies as researchers have managed to reach solar efficiencies of above 40%, but what remains the challenge is the high costs associated with material costs, to make these solar cells commercially available. The other challenge is utilizing materials that are sustainable i.e. environmentally friendly.
In the last decade, the solar industry has experienced a lot of technological breakthroughs such as increased solar efficiency. The first-ever made useful solar panels were invented by Bell Labs with an efficiency of about six (6) percent.
More and more solar panels manufacturers continue to do research and development (R&D) to increase the efficiency of solar panels using different materials ranging from first-generation solar cells (wafer-based cells) made of crystalline silicon to second-generation solar cells (thin-film solar cells), that include amorphous silicon, CdTe and CIGS cells and finally the third generation of solar cells which are the emerging photovoltaics mostly made of organic materials, often organometallic compounds as well as inorganic substance.
What is the best solar panel efficiency?
However, most the solar panel especially sold for residential or commercial places have the efficiency of a solar cell ranging between 15% to 25% solar efficiency. Although with the increase in R&D efforts in the future we expect to see a lot of technological breakthroughs where solar panel efficiency will be ranging between 30% to even above 40%. For instance, researchers have managed to achieve 46% efficiency as noted by EnergySage. Although, the main concern with these high solar efficiencies is the cost.
We can say the general trend of solar panel efficiency for solar panels that are commercially available ranges between 15% to 25%. This range of solar efficiencies represents what is currently the best solar panel efficiency at affordable costs.
Looking into the future, we will see the cost of these high-efficiency solar panels declining as researchers are looking into the material design with respect to environmentally or sustainable materials that are not harmful to the environment while reducing the cost of materials as possible. For instance, researchers are still looking for ways to use alternatives other than lead for the Lead halide perovskite PVs (LHP-PV) which emerged in the last decade as a viable thin-film PV technology due to its high efficiency and its low manufacturing costs. Lead is well-known as a toxic chemical to human health and potential negative impacts on the environment.
In addition, currently, many solar researchers are involved to assist in the development of solar cells with increased efficiencies while looking for ways to reduce the costs. For instance, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) maintains a chart (shown below) of the highest confirmed conversion efficiencies for research cells for a range of photovoltaic technologies, plotted from 1976 to the present.
This plot is courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Golden, CO for solar cell efficiency of solar cells under R&D as confirmed by independent recognized test labs such as NREL, AIST, JRC-ESTI, and Fraunhofer-ISE—and are reported on a standardized basis. Cell efficiency results are provided within families of semiconductors: Multijunction cells, single-junction gallium arsenide cells, Crystalline silicon cells, Thin-film technologies, and Emerging photovoltaics. Interested in going solar? Learn more here about the steps for installing a solar PV system for your home or business.