What solar panels should you choose?

The question that I’m asked most often about solar is what type of panels do you use. And I think that the reason people ask this is that it’s the most obvious question. It’s the most visible part of a system. When you drive past a house, the panels is what we see. It’s certainly not everything to do with the system, but it is what we see, so therefore, it’s what people are curious about. So what I’m going to cover in this particular presentation is, how we choose brands, the differences between brands, common characteristics like sizes, wattages, the differences in appearance that you might see, and some technologies. At the end of it, you’ll see what we use and what we recommend. It’s certainly not comprehensive. Most of it is my opinion, so don’t sue me, but it will be useful to you. 

Solar Panels Brands

Panels are about 45% of the cost of a system. That’s what I’m showing here. The other parts of it are made up as the inverters, which is probably less than a quarter installation and in the balance of system, which is the mounting and the cables and so forth. But panels are the biggest chunk, almost half of an entire system. Part of the reason that I think it’s confusing is that there’s so many brands that we have no familiarity with. In almost any other subject that you can imagine, whether it’s cars or coffee makers or cameras or ladders, if you see a brand, you’ve got some associations with it. Whereas with panels, they’re just names. People say Trina or Risen or JA. It’s just noise basically. 

 There are some exceptions. There are some household names that do sneak in. LG is one. Obviously, we know them through white goods as amongst other things. Hyundai, one of their divisions, I think it’s called the Heavy Goods Division, make panels. So we do see some other things that we know there. Over time, Panasonic, Sharp, Mitsubishi, HBL thrown their hat in the ring with panels. But the ones that we look at are really just names that are not familiar. Hence, my Where’s Wally? We’re looking for the needle in the haystack, and it doesn’t necessarily mean anything. So I’ll go through what it is that we look for. 

Country of origin

 The things that matter, country of origin. And just out of interest, probably about 90 something percent of all panels are made in China. There’s a few other countries that are good at manufacturing solar panels. South Korea is extraordinary. So LG, made in South Korea. Q-Cells have a couple of their model numbers that are made in South Korea. Winaico, manufacturer in Taiwan. And SunPower have plants all over the world. So yes, they have plants in China, but they also have plants in America and Mexico and so forth. When we get into actual products later on, you’ll see. One of our better choices is a SunPower panel, and one of the extraordinary choices is also a SunPower panel. But there’s lots of ways to look at panels, frame color, the sizes, the power class, which is how many watts it is, the efficiency, who makes it, the reputation of that company, for example. 

And the way that we choose is we’re looking for companies that have got a dedication to the Australian market. I’ll take Trina as an example. So Trina have been making panels for over 20 years now. They’ve been in Australia for 12 or 13 years approximately. The stock levels are good. So we know that if we offer it, when we want to turn around and buy it, it’s always available. So that matters a lot. There are panels that are very, very good quality. An example of that would be a German brand called Aleo, who are trying to get a foothold here in Australia. When I looked at them last year, they weren’t carrying any stock in Australia. We could order it and then wait. And that just doesn’t work for people. If you want to put a system on, we don’t want to have to import the panels, especially now. They may have fixed that situation, and I hope so, but we do look for ongoing continuity of supply so that when we offer it, we don’t have to change it. So we very rarely substitute panels. If we did have an issue, we would come back to you and tell you why and not deal without… You’re okay. 

Sizes of solar panels

One of the most common differences with panels is size, physical size. So there’s two sizes of panels traditionally, what we call a 60-cell format and the other being a 72-cell format. The 60-cell format is about 1.7 metres, so up to here by 1 metre. They’re used for residential. A 72-cell is about 2 metres x 1 metre, physically larger, typically takes two people to carry it. They’re used for commercial work. So there’s some exceptions. This panel behind me from LONGi is of a new size. It’s a 66-cell format, so it’s about almost 1.8 metres tall by a metre wide, but it’s a higher output than a normal 60-cell. So… But probably about 90% of all panels are one of these two different sizes. It can be confusing because the wattages associated with the 72-cell are higher. So even a poorly performing panel will be, say, a 350-watt, but on the higher side, that might be 435. So sometimes people will say things like, “Oh, I’ve been offered a 400-watt panel. Why are yours only 330-watt?” And the difference is, it’s physically bigger. The footprint of the system would be the same, but we don’t typically use 72-cell panels for residential because installers don’t like them. They’re bigger to carry. 

Warranty periods of solar panels

So I’ve covered a bit of this, what we look for, ongoing supply, history of the company, warranty periods, and so forth, and I want to talk about warranty periods. This is probably one of the most confusing parts of solar panels, and the reason is that there’s two separate warranties. There’s what’s called a performance warranty, and then there’s a product warranty. The performance warranty is really more of a description about how a panel degrades over time. So if we said that we start off with a panel that’s a 330-watt panel, when it’s brand new, it’s going to produce 330 watts. Ten years down the track, it’s probably lost 10% of its output capacity; 25 years down the track, it’s probably lost 20% of its output capacity; and the performance warranty describes that gradual degradation from 100% down to 80 or 85% over time, and all panels do it. I think it comes down to the properties of silicon. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it. Silicon just changes over time, and that’s why there is a degradation down to that 80% level. 

The product warranty is typically 10 or 12 years. Some companies have gone up to a 25-year product warranty as well. SunPower has had it for a really long time like maybe decades. And a couple of years ago, LG stepped up to try and match them, and it offered this 25-year product warranty, and it’s… As an example, it’s exceptional about it. It carries stock of every single panel it’s ever sold in Australia, so that if there were a problem, it has the ability to supply a replacement. So they’re quite genuine about that 25-year warranty. Other companies have jumped on board. Q-Cells have got a couple of their panels which are made in South Korea that they’ve tagged on this 25-year product warranty with. Others, such as REC, I think have a 20- or 25-year product warranty now. Risen is offering a 15, but a lot of them in the middle group are 10 or 12 years, which I still think is perfectly acceptable. The payback period for solar is typically four years or thereabouts for residential solar. Sometimes it’s three in extraordinary cases. So the system will have well and truly paid for itself. It still will have a lifespan of decades, and I think having a product warranty of 10 or 12 years is great. 


 So this is our reveal about what it is that we offer and what we recommend. So I was filling up petrol a couple of days ago at a Caltex, and they’ve got this good, better, best on the different types of fuel. So I tried to list ours under good, better, and best, but I couldn’t. It wasn’t enough categories. I ended up with a kind of “insane” category for the really, really good ones, like the top-of-the-line LGs and the top-of-the-line SunPowers, ones that are made in the USA. There’s also another category at the bottom which is very technical. It’s the yeah/nah category, and there’s a couple in there that we would just choose not to use. They are Clean Energy Council accredited or listed, so they’re probably fine. The savings are maybe 5 or 10% on a system, but we choose not to use them. Sometimes, it’s based on the fact that the companies are new and unproven or just don’t have representation here in Australia. 

So in the good category, which is mostly where we sit, we’re talking about brands like Trina, LONGi, JA, Q-Cells, and I would describe these middle-of-the-road-type panels as a Toyota Camry: Good, solid, reliable, they will go the distance, they are really good value. In the better category, we move up to things like the Q-Cells G5, which is the first of their products which is to be made… Is made in South Korea. The Q-Cells down at the bottom is kind of halfway between. I just like Q-Cells actually. I think they’re a great brand, so they’re in our good category where they’re probably half a step better than the others and fractionally more expensive. So in terms of prices, what we’re talking about is, let’s say, for example, that a… Talk about a 6-kilowatt system for lack of a better example. In the good category, maybe that’s a $6000 purchase. Changing from, say, a Trina to a Q-Cells might add just a few hundred dollars to that. 

Moving up to the Q-Cells G5+, probably add $800 or $1000 to that price. Moving up to these best panels, probably talking about $2000 difference. So maybe these become an $8000 system. In this insane category, the LG NeON R, which is a 370 watt panel, compared to a 350 for the NeON 2, or 355, this might add another $1000. So the question is, is this justified? If you have unlimited resources, sure, but in terms of value for money, we think not. The same is true with the SunPower Maxeon, which is 300- to 400-watt panel of that 60-cell size. I think it’s one of the most efficient in the world. This would add several thousand dollars even to this category, so maybe we’re looking at $10,000 or thereabouts for a 6-kilowatt system. So we like to play in the good and better categories. That’s where we stand. I like analogies. So for us, as I’ve said, the good is a Camry, better would be like a Prado, the best would be like a Lexus, and the insane is like a Bentley, and down in the bottom category, we’ve got the Chery. Maybe that’s a favourite first car but also maybe not. 

 What they look like. So on the far left is one of my favourite panels. It’s called the Trina Honey Black. It’s got a black backing sheet, so there’s no white bits shining through on the surface. I like it, especially if you’ve got a black tiled roof. It just looks absolutely schmick. In the middle, this is a Q-Cells G5+, and this is the LONGi. So this is a nice CAD image of the LONGi, computer-generated, which is actually the panel that I’ve got behind me. So it is a really good-looking panel, nice black frame and so forth. This is just a quick nod to SunPower. They’re actually built differently to other panels. All their electronics are on the back, not the front. So on a LONGi, for example, we can see there’s these… Really, you can’t see it. Well, I’ll describe it to you. There’s like silver lines that go across here, which carry the current. They’re all on the front. On the SunPower, they’re all put on the back. It increases the efficiency. I’m sure it’s subject to a dozen different patents, but it gives them a very particular look, and it helps them tweak out some additional efficiency with SunPower. 


So that’s it. Basically, those are our choices. We can source anything, but there is a point at which there’s diminishing returns on the benefits of investigating every single panel that is out there. So we have our favourites. We’re happy to talk about any panels that you would like. And if you want them, we can use them, but our favourites would be Trina, LONGi, JA, Q-Cells, for example. Thanks very much. If you want to talk about solar for your house, give me a call, Stuart on 0424-225-097. Thanks. 

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