There was a time when solar panels were prohibitively expensive and only the wealthiest homeowners could afford them. That has changed with dramatic price drops over the last several years. Today’s solar panels cost 10 percent less than they did last year, a trend that has borne out since the 1980s, according to Oxford University Researchers.

When it comes to making the choice on which panels to buy, it is important to remember that “most affordable” does not necessarily mean “cheapest.” A solar array might cost more at the start, but better efficiency might mean that it produces more and longer than other panels, making it a smarter and a more “affordable” investment in the long run.

Top 25 Most Affordable Solar Panels

When it comes to the initial outlay of cash, which solar panels are the most affordable for homeowners? Those looking to get their solar panels up and running with as little impact on their bottom line as possible can check out these top 25 affordable panels on the market today.

Rank Manufacturer Model Power (Watts) Price Price per watt
1 ReneSola JC255M-24/Bb 255 $173.40 $0.68
2 Sharp ND245QCJ 245 $176.40 $0.72
3 Sharp ND-F4Q300 300 $216.00 $0.72
4 Trina Solar TSM-PA05 270 $210.60 $0.78
5 Jinko Solar JKM310P-72 310 $251.10 $.81
6 Jinko Solar JKM315P-72 315 $255.15 $0.81
7 GigaWatt Inc 255W 255 $229.50 $0.90
8 Sharp ND250QCS 250 $225.00 $0.90
9 Canadian Solar CS6P-250-P 250 $235.00 $0.94
10 Canadian Solar CS6X-310-M 310 $291.40 $0.94
11 Hanwha Q CELLS BFR-G3 255 $239.70 $0.94
12 REC REC280TP 280 $263.20 $0.94
13 Hanwha Q CELLS BFT-G3 265 $251.75 $0.95
14 REC REC255PEBLK 255 $247.35 $0.97
15 Canadian Solar CS6X-315P 315 $308.70 $0.98
16 REC 01102570 315 $311.85 $0.99
17 Trina Solar TSM-PA05.08 225 $225.00 $1.00
18 Suniva BP1100763 265 $275.60 $1.04
19 Solar World SOLW-00778 270 $299.70 $1.11
20 Solar World SW275 275 $313.50 $1.14
21 Solar World SW285 285 $324.90 $1.14
22 LG LG275S1C-B3 275 $316.25 $1.15
23 Suniva OPT275-60-4-1BO 275 $321.75 $1.17
24 Trina Solar TSM-260PA05A 260 $314.60 $1.21
25 Yingli Green YL260C-30b-H4 260 $361.40 $1.39

Please note: Solar panel technology changes quickly and what is very affordable today might be replaced by something even more affordable tomorrow. To be certain of prices, check with the manufacturer or contractor before ordering panels, but this chart will give you an understanding of approximate costs from a variety of manufacturers and for a variety of solar panels. This chart is based on the pricing of single solar panels; however, purchasing by the pallet or through a contractor can usually make the per-panel price significantly cheaper.

Factors Affecting Solar Affordability

The cost of solar panels is set by the manufacturer based on many points such as the efficiency and expected longevity of the panels. As you might imagine, the higher the efficiency over a long period of time, the more expensive the panels will likely be.

How the panel is made matters. There are various types of units, including monocrystalline (single crystal), polycrystalline (multiple crystals), gallium arsenide, cadmium telluride, and amorphous silicon – and that’s just what is available at the moment. With the ever-changing technology of solar, it is entirely possible that more varieties of solar panels units will hit the market soon.

Typically, monocrystalline panels generate the most watts per area, which means fewer panels can be used to produce the needed amount of electricity, and that takes up less space. This higher efficiency usually means that monocrystalline panels are more expensive; however, other factors come into play as well, such as warranties, durability and more.

Finally, remember that solar panels are only one part of the total cost of the system. Though this page will teach homeowners how to calculate panel value and showcase a few points that are necessary to make the right choices concerning their solar panels, there are other parts of a system a homeowner needs to consider.

Solar Expert Q&A

In order to get a grasp on what makes solar panels truly affordable, we reached out to Brilliant Harvest founder Bill Johnson. His many years of experience in the solar industry have led to valuable insights into what homeowners need to know when they begin the search for solar panels that fit their budget and their energy needs.

How should a homeowner begin when comparing solar panels?

The key factors to consider when comparing solar panels are performance (they should produce the power that the rating leads you to expect), quality, durability and beneficial warranty terms. Aesthetics can also play a role in a consumer’s decision-making process.

There are annual lists produced by solar publications of the top PV panel manufacturers. These resources make it easy to learn which manufacturers make a quality product – and which ones to avoid.

Why are some solar panels cheaper?

As a consumer, you are making a long-term investment in your solar panels and what you think is a great deal on an unknown panel may turn out to be a bad deal in the long run. In addition, because of the economies of scale related to solar PV production, often the largest, most reputable manufacturers have some of the lowest cost panels on the market.

Can you look at a solar panel and tell if it’s cheaply made?

Unlike many products, solar panels have no moving parts, so it’s often difficult to tell by just looking if a panel is cheaply made. The market for solar PV is exploding globally and because of this there are companies around the world and in the U.S. that are willing to cut corners to gain market share. These defects are often not visible to the average consumer but result in lower-than-rated power output, possible safety issues, and long-term durability problems.

What about used solar panels?

It is usually not a smart idea to purchase used panels. PV panel technology is moving forward at an extremely fast pace, with panel power levels increasing 10 percent or more per year. In 2009, we were installing panels that were 205 watts per panel. That same size panel today is producing up to 315 Watts. In addition, it’s very likely that the used panel will have no warranty coverage for any issues that arise. Finally, it will be difficult to find an installer willing to work with the used panel, since any problems that arise will need to be handled by his/her firm, and the used panels are likely to have more issues than a new panel.

Can a contractor really get a better deal? How much do contractors mark up panels, anyway?

Typically markup on panels and other components is 30 to 40 percent, depending on the situation. This covers shipping and handling, insurance, warranty coverage, licensing, and many other costs related to being a legitimate installer. PV panels are bulky, awkward to handle, fragile before being installed (don’t drop one on a corner!) and must be installed in often difficult situations (just imagine carrying a 45-pound panel up a steep rooftop in the wind, then repeat that for every panel that needs to be installed – it’s not easy work).

What many folks don’t realize is that there is a tremendous amount more that goes into a quality solar PV installation than just the panels themselves. A quality installation is expected to last 25 years or more, so every aspect of the installation must be considered for durability and longevity. Factors such as roof angle and orientation, roof type, number of roof faces, local electric utility company, and local building code – they all impact the installation. There are very few do-it-yourselfers with the skills needed to successfully install a system, produce the power expected and have it last 25 years. Even small choices like the type of roof sealant and methods for securing the exposed rooftop wiring can have a major impact on the durability of the system. Some utility companies have very complex paperwork requirements just to allow you to turn the system on and connect to the grid.

So going with the least expensive panel might actually cost more in the long run?

It’s absolutely worth the cost to hire a quality installer to help you through the process. Ten years ago, the panels were by far the single largest cost in a PV installation, often accounting for 70 to 80 percent of the installed cost of a system. But today, panels are less than 30 percent of the cost of an installation. Because of this, buying panels at wholesale and finding a contractor to install them will almost certainly end up costing you more than if you just have the contractor purchase directly. For example, my company, Brilliant Harvest, LLC, works with our distributors to obtain pricing that no homeowner can get. This is because of the volume of panels we purchase, our creditworthiness, and our reputation with existing clients. We search every day among our distributors to ensure we are getting the best price for the panels we install, and we stand behind our work 100 percent. If you have an issue, we are there to take care of it.

Anything else we need to know about solar panel affordability?

Solar panels should last and produce an output of more than 80 percent of the rated power for at least two decades. The lifetime of solar panels varies depending on quality of materials and the manufacturer. If a panel has a warranty of less than 10 years, you should exercise caution. A warranty of 25 years is much more desirable.

You should be able to find out the names of and do research on the kinds of equipment the contractor will use in your system. You should learn about the brand of solar panels before having them installed on your home. If you don’t recognize the name or can’t find any information about a brand, you may not want to use them – or the company – on your job.

Lifespan of a Solar Panel

Though cheaper panels might look really good when it comes to the initial cost, there can be a hefty price to pay for going with the lowest estimate. Though all solar panels are designed to be very robust and stand up to the elements for several decades, the power output for some can begin to wane within the first year of installation.

A standard solar panel warranty should help alleviate concerns; it guarantees that over the span of 25 years, the power output should not be less than 80 percent of the rated power. This helps ensure that homeowners will get continuous high performance from the panels they purchase.

Panels that come with a lesser warranty might wind up costing more in the long run – for instance, a panel might show a dramatic drop in power during year eleven, but if the warranty ran out at year 10, the homeowner is out of luck and might need to go to the expense of a replacement panel.

The Impact of Chinese Solar Panels

When looking for the cheapest possible panels, homeowners might stumble upon prices that seem like a dream come true. However, those amazingly cheap price tags can be attached to solar panels created with a hefty environmental and human rights impacts.

The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition creates an annual list ranking solar manufacturers on various environmental and human rights criteria:

Company 2015 Total Score
Maximum Score 100
SunPower 97
SolarWorld 94
Trina 93
Yingli 80
JA Solar 77
AUO 68
LG 62
First Solar 59
Upsolar 58
Axitec 55
Kyocera 55
Mitsubishi 53
Jinko 53
Panasonic 50
Avancis 43
Renesola 37
Sharp 36
LDK 35
Aleo 32
China Sunergy-Csun 32
Calyxo 29
Motech 25
Solar Frontier 23
Samsung 22
Eurener 22
Astronergy 19
Solopower 17
Hanwha SolarOne 16
NBSolar 15

Source: 2015 Solar Scorecard

Challenges for the solar industry when it comes to PV module production include:

Greenhouse Gases

The manufacture of solar panels produces greenhouse gases, so in order to make up for the impact on the environment, solar panels must work for a long time to negate the carbon footprint. Cheaper panels may degrade faster than others, which means they might not reach the threshold required to make up for their production.

Toxic Byproducts

The making of solar panels produces some toxic byproducts. China doesn’t have the same standards for dealing with toxic products as the United States does. Though there are rules in place that require panel manufacturers to recycle the waste, there is no word yet on whether those rules are being enforced.

Conflict Materials

It is also important to remember that in some cases, solar panels are produced with conflict materials. This means that the workers who mine for these minerals are under conditions of armed conflict or human rights abuses. The United States requires that companies disclose where the minerals used in their products come from, which can help cut down on the use of conflict materials; China, however, currently has no such requirements. So when homeowners purchase solar panels that were made in China, they might not know exactly where the materials came from.

Shipping Impacts

In addition to these concerns, there is also the issue of shipping those solar panels around the world. Transportation creates an enormous carbon footprint, which means solar panels must last even longer to negate the environmental costs of their shipment. Add up all the potential environmental impacts, human rights issues and the simple question of how long they will last, and the answer becomes clear: Homeowners should always think twice before going with the cut-rate prices on some foreign solar panels.