8 alternatives to the Tesla Solar Roof (updated Oct 2019)

A review of current and upcoming solar shingle products, and we see where Tesla is at with their Solar Roof. Also: great conventional alternatives to solar shingles.

Solar shingles or solar tiles are a class of photovoltaics that are broadly known as building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV). They are photovoltaic modules that are made to mimic the look of normal roofing products, like asphalt shingles or slate tiles.

They are a small niche of the overall home solar market, but got a prominent boost when Tesla introduced their Solar Roof. While Tesla was not the first manufacturer to enter the market, they were innovators by creating a glass-faced solar tile that looks like a conventional roofing product and comes in a wider range of styles than other solar shingles available on the market.

Tesla has a rabid following, and new Tesla products instantly go viral. The Solar Roof was no exception, and its entry into the BIPV market has spurred a lot of interest in the segment. Some companies already had solar shingle products, while other companies were seemingly inspired by Tesla to develop competing products.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the current offerings from Tesla and competing manufacturers, and discuss the general pros and cons. While the idea of a roof that looks completely ordinary but is capable of discreetly generating several kilowatts of power is appealing, this type of photovoltaics has some serious drawbacks that consumers should know about. I’ll discuss those issues later in this article.

Better looking conventional solar panels that are an alternative to solar shingles?

Because of these drawbacks, I’ll list several alternatives to solar shingles that use conventional solar technology. These aren’t solar panels that try to mimic roofing shingles, but manufacturers take steps to make conventional solar panels looks more sleek and attractive.

But let’s start off with our review of eight BIPV products.

The Tesla Solar Roof (version 3)

(updated Oct 2019 with pricing)

The Tesla Solar Roof is a roof replacement with glass tiles that look like normal roofing shingles or tiles, but have solar cells and electronics embedded in them. This is a lot different from the typical solar home with rack-mounted solar panels. The result is a normal looking roof that generates electricity.

If you’re interested in the Tesla Solar Roof and haven’t seen it already, definitely take the 19 minutes to watch the original product unveiling by Elon Musk. As he explains, the Solar Roof is a glass-faced solar tile that uses hydrographic printing to give the tile an appearance that looks remarkably like slate, clay tile, or a dark shingle. The glass layer encorporates louvers that permit light to enter the tile from above, but when viewed at an angle (like you would from street level) the louver presents a different appearance that reveals the printed design.

The result is striking. If you weren’t told, you probably wouldn’t realize that the roof is actually covered in solar panels. The solar cell isn’t visible unless you’re looking directly at the tile from above, and even then it’s not that obvious, although it’s a little more visible in the “clay” version. Here’s some images from an early customer:

Telsa solar roof.  Credit: Amanda Tobler
Credit: Amanda Tobler

That’s the textured glass tile, which also comes in a smooth version. Here’s what the slate and clay tiles look like:

Telsa slate tile Telsa clay tile
The Tesla slate and clay Solar Roof tiles.

Not every tile incorporates solar cells. Each design includes tiles with and without solar cells. Tesla explains that, just like any standard solar photovoltaic system, they will size your system so that it generates no more than 100% of your average annual electricity use. The rest of the roof is covered with non-PV tiles so that the roof has a consistent appearance.

Version 3 update

That initial product was announced in October 2016, but it had very limited production. On a Tesla earnings call in March, Elon Musk explained that the solar division had taken a back seat to the Model 3 vehicle production ramp-up, which consumed the company’s focus for over a year. With Model 3 production improving, Musk declared that 2019 would be the year of the solar roof.

More recently, on a conference call on October 25th, Tesla announced the latest version of their Solar Roof.

It turns out that Tesla is currently on their third version of the Solar Roof and that the previous two versions were expensive, and more complicated to manufacture and install.

The following are some questions and excerpts from the conference call. It has been lightly edited.

Solar Roof conference call: introductory remarks by Elon Musk

The following are some excerpts from Musk’s introduction. You can follow the link above to hear the entire call.

Musk spends time explaining the improved economics of the version 3 roof, but that the Solar Roof still only makes sense if you are planning to replace your roof anyway. If your roof has ten years or more life left in it, he recommends that you go with conventional Tesla solar panels:

The intent behind the solar glass roof is that we can make a roof come alive. All of these rooftops are gathering sunlight, but doing nothing with it... In the future, it will be odd for roofs to be dormant.

...The solar glass roof is not going to make financial sense for somebody who has a relatively new roof, because this itself is a roof that has integrated solar power generation. Therefore, it has the cost of roofing a house in addition to the cost of solar cells. However, we've been able to achieve with Version 3 a price point that is less than what the average roof costs plus solar panels. So if you're looking at two options: one is you need a roof, or need to re-roof your house, and look at the cost of that and the cost of adding solar panels to that roof, versus the cost of Tesla solar glass roof, which is a roof plus integrated solar cells, the Tesla solar glass roof will cost less.

...It’s been quite hard to get to this point. This is quite a difficult product because roofs have to last for a long time, and when you add electrification to the roof, and then you have wires, you have to make sure that’s going to be safe, and not cause any risk to the house. You want this to last something on the order of 30 years or more - it’s not easy to do accelerated life testing, in course of 6 months try to accelerate the life of the roof such that we know what it will be like in 30 years.

...In a nutshell, if you are re-roofing or getting a new roof, I feel quite confident that this is a smart move. But if your roof is already new, then it will not be a smart move financially. You may still want to do it, but it will be financially punative to do it on an existing roof that has a lot of life left on it, then we would recommend the Tesla solar panels.

What changes have been implemented from v1 to v2 to v3, and what was the impact on cost and performance?

We increased the size of the tile, increased the power density, decreased the number of parts and subassemblies in the tile by more than a half. This goes in the direction of lower cost and easier manufacturability. The technology used to hide the solar cells behind the glass has been improved. You want the photons form the sun to get to the cell, but not be asetheically unappealing. Solar cells are optically isotropic - they can look green from one angle and purple from another. We have, through a number of iterations, landed on a technology that gets the solar tiles to the point where they are anisotropic - they blend in with non-solar tiles and look the same from any angle.

The other key aspect was focusing on installation. We really wanted to achieve an installation time that was faster than a new roof plus traditional panels... With the right tooling and equipment, and especially paying close attention to the edge effects of where multiple planes of the roof meet... I think we can actually have the solar glass roof install faster than a comp (composite) shingle. That’s the target. We’re coming after you, comp shingle!

The final thing I would mention is the flashing - the trimming of the roof - in early versions of the product were almost like custom handicraft. What we’ve done is come up with beautiful solutions that are achieveable in the field.

Our installers have been working hard installing this, and have already seen this is much simpler, faster, and a lot more intuitive to install.

When can we expect Solar Roof v3 to available for wide residential adoption?

That’s now, actually. You can go to the website, enter your address, and place an order right now. We’re ramping up installations as fast as we possibly can, starting in the next few weeks. Actually some are underway right now. Our goal is to get north of 1,000 roofs per week as quickly as possible. It's always hard to predict the early stages of a production ramp because things move as fast as the slowest item, but I think over the next several months we’ll pass 1,000 roofs per week. That’s our goal.

What is the current solar roof production capacity, and how should we think about the production ramp through 2020? How are you feeling about demand?

I don’t think we’re going to have much of a demand problem, to be honest. I think demand will be in far excess of supply. As always, it’s very difficult to predict a production ramp because it almost always looks like an S-curve. It starts off very slow at first because of a number of constraints. It could be a very trivial part that is limiting the production ramp. Just one little thing that is taking longer that expected - that’s the total production rate. It’s essentially impossible to predict with accuracy the fast moving part of the production s-curve, but we can predict when the s-curve starts to flatten out - that’s much more predictable. And that's why I think probably several months from now, we’ll be able to do more than 1,000 roofs a week.

Long term, we obviously want to do 10,000 roofs a week, and then 20,000 roofs a week. The addressable market here is something on the order of 100,000,000 houses worldwide.

We're starting off with the textured black glass, and hopefully we'll be able to bring to production other variants of the solar glass roof every six to nine months - something like that. One of the most challenging is achieving a good earth tone solar glass roof - meaning a good clay tile. It’s doable, but it’s harder to achieve the right look. But that’s something on the order of a year away - something like that.

How will Tesla handle logistics with installations? Do you already have partnerships with installation companies?

We don’t have any partnerships with installation companies. The current plan is to iron out the broad brushstrokes with our internal installation crews, so we feel like we’re getting a positive learning curve, and then bring in outside roofing companies and asking, how can you help us make this better? I think we'll see a very rapid improvement with the solar roof installation and timing. Version 3 is the first version that we think that should be ramped up at scale. This is often true of new technologies. Windows 1 and 2 didn't really work, frankly. Windows 3 was the first big one.

We’re going to keep improving the roof as we scale. We’re hiring a lot of installers. We'll be partnering with installation companies in weeks to come.

Can you speak about the relative improvement in cost from Version 2 to Version 3 of the solar glass roof?

You’re right, Version 2 was too expensive. It’s not like we were making a ton of money on it - we were just trying to not lose money on it. It just wasn’t a version that was worth scaling because it was too expensive. Version 3 is something where we do think we can get below the average roof cost plus retrofit solar panels.

What do you anticipate the wait time will be?

It depends on how many people sign up for the glass roof. It might be a few months they'll have to wait, or several months. The sooner they sign up the less time they'll have to wait. We will grow this exponentially. It might be doubling every month - something like that. We want to go to the point next year where there's a very short wait time.

Tesla Solar Roof pricing

As Tesla explains, the Solar Roof installation involves a complete roof replacement, and only makes financial sense if you need a new roof anyway.

Version 3 of the roof is substantially cheaper than previous versions. A story by Electrek says that the Version 3 price is 40% cheaper. In their example, a 9.45 kW Tesla Solar Roof installation that includes a Powerwall battery was quoted as $38,266. This is substantially better than previous price of $64,634.

The Solar Roof comes with an infinite warranty on the glass, but not the solar cells, which come with a 25 year warranty.

With the promised ramp-up in production, if you put in an order today, you might be able to get your installation done as quickly as a couple months, but as you can read in the conference call transcript, there’s a lot of uncertainty in how fast they’ll be able to produce it. From a cost point of view, any delayed delivery is an important consideration because the federal tax rebate drops from 30% to 26% in 2020. This means that waiting for Tesla to get through its backlogged orders will likely mean that you will miss the 30% rebate, resulting in a higher total cost.

Still, if appearance is paramount and the warranty is attractive, you might decide the wait is worth it.

Pricing estimator

If you go to the Tesla website, you can plug in your street address and get a rough custom price estimate. It doesn’t say explicitly, but the online estimator probably uses satellite images to estimate your roof area. It seems to assume that you want your entire roof to use the active solar tiles rather than the “filler” tiles for some, because it estimated a 13.4 kW system for my home - which is nearly 3 times larger than my actual system.

Tesla Solar Roof price quote example
A Tesla Solar Roof price estimate for my home

Be aware that you should toggle the “show incentives” button to see the gross price of the system. As you can see, the quoted Tesla system is $44,000. In real life, my 18 panel 4.6 kW system cost me $18,000 before incentives in 2013.

HomeAdvisor estimates that a roof replacement costs an average of $7,777 nationally. So if I add that cost to the gross cost of my system, I end up at only $25,700. That’s still a lot less than $44,000 - but of course the Tesla quoted system is a lot larger than what I need. So it’s possible that if the Tesla Roof was quoted for a similar output at mine, the price should end up closer.

Incentives will drop the price down, but it’s clear that the Tesla roof verion 3 is still a premium product, and not directly comparable to low cost asphalt shingles. However, with the latest substantial price improvement, version 3 of the Tesla Solar Roof is definitely a lot more attractive.

If you’re thinking of a premium roofing product, the Tesla Solar Roof should be on your radar. However, you should also recognize that a premium, non-solar roof such as slate or metal should last at least 50 years, if not more. Because the Solar Roof is warrantied for 25 years, it’s possible that the roof will be dead after 25 years and you’ll need another replacement if you want to continue with solar.

CertainTeed Apollo II

CertainTeed is a North American company that manufactures products for roofing, insulation, wallboard, and more. They have two solar products under their Apollo line: Apollo II is a shingle that lays on top of your existing roof, while the Apollo II Tile is a replacement tile, similar to the Tesla Solar Roof.

Unlike Tesla, CertainTeed doesn’t use glass louvers or hyrdographic printing, so the product isn’t as attractive as the Solar Roof, nor is it offered in a variety of appearances that mimic conventional high end roofing products like slate. Still, the Apollo tiles are undeniably more atractive than a standard solar module. The Apollo II product sits flush on top of your existing roof. Unlike a solar panel where there are several inches of air space between the back of the panel and the roof, the Apollo II is installed with a proprietary racking system that has a very low profile and flashing that allows you to install your standard roof shingles directly flush with the Apollo shingles so that it appears to be quite smoothly integrated into the roof. The installation video below gives a closeup look.

Installation video for the CertainTeed Apollo shingles gives a closeup view of the product.

Each product is approximately 47 inches by 17 inches in size, has an STC rating of 63 watts, and a PTC rating of 53.5 watts. Both utilize monocrystalline cells.

How does this compare to a conventional solar module? An average module is about 2500 square inches, and might have a rating of around 280 watts. This translates to a power generation of around 0.112 watts per square inch.

The Apollo shingles are around 800 square inches each, which is 0.079 watts per square inch. This means that they are only about 70% as energy dense as an average performing conventional panel.

Apollo II pricing

Current pricing isn’t advertised, but you can find discontinued Apollo tile products for sale online. One site lists them at $178 per tile. If their current products are about the same price, this would translate to a price per watt of $2.82. For comparison, conventional premium monocrystalline panels cost start around $1.50 per watt, so you are paying about double the cost of a premium solar module, and even more in comparision to a budget solar module.

On the other hand, if you are doing a roof replacement anyway, using the CertainTeed Apollo II Tile does mean you have to purchase fewer conventional shingles for your roof, which reduces that cost somewhat. However, unlike the Tesla Solar Roof, the Apollo II Tile does not have non-solar shingles in the product lineup, so you will still need to install standard materials on the non-solar areas of your rooftop.

The Apollo II shingles are rated to a mechanical load of 250 pounds per square foot, which means they should be able to withstand severe storms and hail. Both Apollo II products come with a 25 year power warranty and a 10 year product warranty.

CertainTeed is owned by the giant French multinational Saint-Gobain, which means there are pretty good odds that the company will be around in a couple decades to provide warranty service if you need it.

Luma Solar Roof

Luma Solar offers a complete roof replacement product that is simply called the Solar Roof. Similiar to Telsa, this is a complete solar roof replacement product that includes both non-solar and solar cell components that gives the roof a more uniform appearance than the solar-only shingles offered by RGS and CertainTeed.

They also offer their PV shingles as a standalone product that can be mixed with conventional roof shingles, similar to those from RGS and CertainTeed. Each shingle is 54.37” x 15.62” and uses polycrystalline cells to generate 60 watts. They offer a 25 year power output warranty and 5 year materials and workmanship warranty.

photo of Luma shinglesLuma shingles

Pricing isn’t available on their website, although one online retailer offers a Luma shingle that is listed as discontinued. Their price is $240 for a 60 watt shingle. This translates to $4 per watt, which is at the very high end of pricing for premium modules.

Luma is a privately held company, so financial information about the health of the company isn’t readily available.

RGS POWERHOUSE 3.0

The POWERHOUSE line of solar shingles was originally a Dow Chemical product based on thin-film solar. Dow exited the solar business in 2016 and sold the POWERHOUSE product line to RGS Energy in 2017. RGS changed the solar technology from thin-film to monocrystalline cells and branded it POWERHOUSE 3.0.

Similar to the CertainTeed Apollo II Tile, POWERHOUSE is a roofing shingle that takes the place of a conventional asphalt shingle. RGS claims a cell efficiency of 17.1%. The dimensions of one shingle is 41.6” x 31.5”, and each generates 60 watts. This is the STC rating. RGS doesn’t provide a PTC or NOTC rating on their spec sheet.

The POWERHOUSE comes in one style, which is an all-black appearance similar to the Apollo II Tile. The solar cells are clearly visible when viewed from above, but are not apparent when viewed from street level.

They are nailed into place like a traditional single and use proprietary connectors and a racking system that frames the shingles in place and provides a conduit for the wiring system.

The video below gives good closeup view of the shingles and the installation process.

These shingles come with a 24 power production warranty and an 11 year product workmanship warranty.

Pricing is difficult to come by. They did publish a press release that claims the installed cost for a 6 kW system is $3.30 per watt, including labor and materials. They also recommend that POWERHOUSE should be installed with a new roof at the same time.

Is the POWERHOUSE a product we would recommend? If you read our guide on solar panel specifications, you’ll know that one of the important things when evaluating warranties is predicting whether the company will be in business a decade or two decades from now to actually provide service and replacement parts. RGS Energy is a publicly-listed company, and their financial statements indicate a significant net loss for at least four years running.

RGS used to be a high-flying stock that has lost nearly 100% of its market value, and was delisted from Nasdaq. The company is currently exploring “strategic alternatives”, has exited its traditional solar business, and is betting its future on the prospect that California’s mandate that new homes must include solar will boost it’s POWERHOUSE product.

Because of this, we think it would be risky to install this product on your home. If you do go ahead, it would be a good idea to stockpile some extra shingles in case the company goes under and isn’t around to provide replacements.

SunTegra Tile and Shingle

SunTegra is a New York-based company that provides two products: their Shingle which is mounted on top of your existing asphalt shingles, and their Tile which is pitched as a replacement for concrete tile products. Neither is offered with a non-PV option, so these are intended to be integrated alongside conventional roofing shingles or tiles.

The Shingle is a little different from other solar shingles in that are larger than an asphalt shingle, measuring 52 58” x 23 18”. This is because they sit on top of your roof and do not replace your existing shingles. They are very low profile, measuring only 34” high. One feature not seen in other products in the incorporation of an air channel on the backside of the module, which the company claims will keep the panel cooler and improve efficiency.

photo of SunTegra shingles SunTegra shingle.

photo of SunTegra Tiles SunTegra Tile.

The panels use monocrystalline cells and have a peak output of 100-110 watts. No PTC or NOCT power rating is listed.

Pricing is not listed on their website.

These panels come with a 25 year power warranty and a 10 year product warranty. SunTegra is a private company, so no company financials are available.

Other manufacturers

This is a list of other solar roofing products that are either still in development, or are not yet readily available in the United States.

Exasun X-Tile and X-Roof

Exasun is a company based in the Netherlands. Their X-Roof product is a complete roof replacement, while X-Tile resembles a terracotta tile that will be availabe in a range of colors. X-Roof is available now, while X-Tile is expected to be available in the fall of 2019.

You can visit their website (in Dutch) to learn more: https://exasun.com/bestellen/zonnepanelen/x-roof/

Forward

Forward is a startup that used a Kickstarter campaign to develop their solar roofing project. Similar to the Tesla Solar Roof, the Forward line is intended to be a whole-roof replacement product that includes PV and non-PV components for a seamless visual appearance. They have two styles in development: Metal, which resembles a steel roof, and Tile, which resembles terracotta. Like Tesla, customers can make a reservation for $1,000. No word about when the product will hit the market. https://www.forwardsolarroofing.com/

Hanergy HanTile

Hanergy is a San Francisco-based company that specializes in thin-film solar. Their Hantile product mimics a dark terracotta roofing tile, and integrates thin film PV. Not much information is available at this time. Their website is: https://www.hanergyamerica.com/hantile

Sunflare

Sunflare announced a prototype of a solar shingle based on thin-film PV. Apart from some mockup images, no product information is available at this time.

Pros and cons of solar shingles

It’s clear that there is a lot of consumer interest in photovoltaics that look more attractive than standard photovoltaics, and several companies have stepped up to introduce a range of products into the market. There’s no doubt that some of these products make for a nicer looking roof, but does it make sense to use these in place of conventional solar modules?

Let’s take a look at the pros and cons:

Pros of solar shingles

  • They look better. The Tesla product line is the most impressive looking, but all of these products give you a much cleaner looking roof, one that passsersby might not even notice is different from other roofs on your street. One case where this may be important is if you live in a condo or gated community and have rules under your homeowners association that restricts you from placing solar panels on your roof for esthetic reasons. Keep in mind that California and New York, two of the largest solar markets in the countries, have rules that limit the ability of an HOA to restrict solar panels. There are two dozen states with similiar solar access laws.
  • (Probably) higher home equity. If the product holds up over time, the investment you’ve made into your home with BIPV panels is significant, and should result in a higher value in your home. My article discussing whether solar panels add value to your home goes into this topic in detail.

Cons of solar shingles

  • They cost a lot more. Clear pricing is hard to come by, but you should expect to pay at least twice as much on a per-watt basis compared to a conventional premium solar module. The one case where it may make more financial sense to use a solar shingle is when you need to do a complete roof replacement already.
  • Poorer efficiency. Even though some of these products use monocrystalline cells, none of them are as efficient as the best modules on the market, which are nearly 23% efficient. This is partly because of design compromises that prioritize esthetics, and also poorer ventilation compared to a standard rack-mounted module that has several inches underneath that permit airflow.
  • Higher module temperatures. Because these modules sit directly against the roof, these solar shingles will get hotter. This reduces cell efficiency and may also contribute to a shorter lifespan.
  • Proprietary technology. Unlike standard modules, each solar shingle manufacturer has a custom design, mounting system, and electrical connectors. This also means that installation may be non-standard and limit your choice about which company can do the installation - often it will be the manufacturer itself.
  • Risk of tying yourself to one company. Because these products are proprietary, there is a higher risk to you if the company goes bankrupt. If a shingle dies, you likely won’t be able to substitute a product from a different manufacturer because the connectors will be incompatible. This means that you have be extra careful to select a company that is likely to survive for the next couple of decades.
  • You are limited to a string inverter. None of these products integrate power optimizers or microinverters, which is a serious drawback if your roof has shading issues that could normally be mitigated with a more sophisticated inverter system. This also complicates diagnostics if you have a failure. With a conventional system, if you have a single panel failure, a power optimizer or microinverter will tell you which panel experienced the fault. This won’t be the case with solar shingles, which means that you will need a service call to diagnose any power interruptions. Even if this is covered under a warranty, it’s still a major downside.
  • Product delay may mean higher cost. Because many of these products are still in development, you may miss the 30% federal tax credit this year and receive only the 26% credit that will be available in 2020.

Great conventional alternatives to solar shingles

As you can see, the list of drawbacks to BIPV products is significant.

The main reason that homeowners are interested in them is better aesthetics, but if you’re willing to consider conventional solar panels, there are choices that look a lot better and sleeker than standard panels. Depending on the color and style of your roof, they won’t stand out as much from the street.

The big benefit of going this route is that you’re using mainstream products, which means you’ll have far more product choices, better known product longevity, conventional racking, more choice of inverters, and many more options when it comes to choosing installers and getting repair service in the future.

Here’s a guide to these products, starting with an explanation of the technology.

Three major reasons why solar panels look different

Let’s go into some background information about what makes some solar cells look different from others. There are three major design aspects to a solar panel that affect its appearance:

  • Whether polycrystalline or monocrystalline silicon is used
  • The color of the layer that the silicon cells are mounted to, known as the backsheet
  • The color of the frame, or whether the panel is frameless

We’ll take a look at each of these in-depth.

Color differences between monocrystalline and polycrystalline cells

There are two types of silicon cells that you will find in solar panels for the residential market: monocrystalline and polycrystalline. You can read our guide to understanding solar panel specifications to learn more about the advantages and disadvantages of the two types, but when it comes to appearances, polycrystalline cells tend to have a blue color and are often iridescent.

Monocrystalline cells, on the other hand, usually have a very dark or black appearance. Instead of iridescence, they have an even color because monocrystalline cells are cut from a single, continuous crystal of silicon, while polycrystalline silicon is made from blocks formed from smaller grains of silicon.

Appearance differences between polycrystalline and monocrystalline solar cells. Appearance differences between polycrystalline and monocrystalline solar cells. [credit]

This difference in color is one factor that may sway your decision between mono and poly panels. Keep in mind that other design factors cause panels to look different, such as the color of the backsheet, how prominent the wires between the cells are, and the type and color of the frame – but the color of the cells is the biggest factor in the overall appearance of a panel.

To illustrate this, take a look at two different panels from Jinko Solar. Their Eagle line comes in mono and polycrystalline models, and the only difference between them is the use of monocrystalline in their Eagle PERC line, and polycrystalline in their standard Eagle.

Jinko Solar Eagle polycrystalline (left) and Eagle monocrystalline (right) solar modules. Jinko Solar Eagle polycrystalline (left) and Eagle monocrystalline (right) solar modules.

If you have asphalt shingles, which is the most common type of roofing material used in the United States, the darker color of the monocrystalline panel will probably blend in better with the color of the roof.

Keep in mind that monocrystalline cells are also more efficient, generating more electricity in the same square footage. You pay a higher price tag for this, though.

The effect of the backsheet on solar panel appearance

You’ll notice with the Eagle panels that a white grid is visible in both the poly and mono panels. That grid is there because each panel is made up of 60 individual solar cells that are wired together and mounted on a layer called the backsheet.

The backsheet of a solar module is usually white for a couple reasons. One, the lighter color reflects light, which helps to keep the panel a little bit cooler, improving power efficiency. Also, some of that reflected light can make it back to the surface of the cells, again adding a little bit of power gain.

However, that white grid does draw attention to itself. To make that grid disappear, many manufacturers sell panels with black backsheets. When combined with black mono cells and a black frame, you can have a photovoltaic system that looks like a continuous slab of black. If you have a dark roofing material on your house, these all-black solar panels can blend into the roof very nicely.

Jinko Solar Eagle polycrystalline (left) and Eagle monocrystalline (right) solar modules. LG NeON 2 (left) and LG NeON 2 Black (right) solar modules.

However, the tradeoff for going with a black backsheet is a small loss of efficiency.

For example, the NeON 2 line of solar panels from LG is offered in both a white and a black backsheet. Both use monocrystalline silicon, giving them a cell color that is nearly pure black, but the black backsheet of the NeON 2 Black makes the panel uniformly dark. The standard NeON 2 line is offered in panel efficiencies up to 19.6%, but the Black line only goes up to 18.7%. This ends up being only a 15 watt difference per panel, which really isn’t very much power. For many people, the improved appearance is well worth it.

It’s also worth noting that some panels eliminate the gap between cells, giving you a continuous field of color regardless of what the color of the backsheet is. An example of this is the Sunergy DMWA1. You can see an image of it below.

Framed and frameless solar panels

The last consideration is the color of the frame, or whether the panel even has a frame at all.

Conventional solar panels are made of several layers held together with an aluminum frame, which is typically silver or black. This is an important detail, because even if you choose a mono panel because of its dark color, the manufacturer still might pair it with a light colored frame, which may not be what you want.

For example, look at the Jinko Eagle panel above, which uses mono cells but has a silver colored frame. Compare that to the LG NeON 2 series, which also uses dark mono cells but instead has a black frame. If the appearance of the panel is important to you, this is another detail to pay attention to.

Frameless solar panels

However, some panels forgo the frame completely. These are called frameless solar modules, and are held together in a sandwich either between glass and a sturdy backsheet, or with glass on both the front and back (known as glass-on-glass).

Glass-on-glass frameless models can even use clear backsheet, which results in a panel that is transparent between the individual cells of the module. This makes for a pretty unique look. This type of panel is usually marketed for special applications, such as awnings, carports, and greenhouses.

This opens up design possibilities that wouldn’t look nearly as pleasing with conventional framed panels.

Jinko Solar Eagle polycrystalline (left) and Eagle monocrystalline (right) solar modules.
Awning built using Lumos Solar frameless panels.

However, frameless panels aren’t widely deployed yet in the residential solar market. The main reason is that they don’t use conventional racking systems, which limits your choices when it comes to installation. Companies that do make frameless panels, such as Lumos Solar, sometimes also develop custom mounting solutions, but that means you’re tied to a proprietary product. However, if you’re looking to do something unique, such as a back porch awning that also generates electricity, the tradeoff may be worth it.

It’s certainly also possible to use frameless clear glass-on-glass panels on a rooftop, and this can look great. The main issue would be finding a compatible mounting system, which is something your solar installer can advise you on.

Choices for all-black and frameless solar panels

For the homeowner who wants to go solar and have their photovoltaic system look as good as possible, the good news is that there are a lot of alternatives. Solar shingles are one choice, but going with conventional panels have a lot of advantages.

Below are a list of some companies selling all-black and frameless solar panels.

Black solar panels

Here’s a partial list of companies and their models of dark solar panels. In some cases, there are two models listed, such as Hanwha, which offers both the Q.PEAK and Q.PEAK DUO in a black model.

One thing you’ll notice with some of the product images is that even though these all use dark monocrystalline cells and dark frames, many still have a faint pattern over top of the cells. These are wires called busbars, and they carry electric current from the cells. Companies use different busbar counts and widths, which is why you see different patterns among these manufacturers.

One exception is SunPower, which actually has found a way to place the wiring on the backside of the solar cell. The result is a solar panel that is a very pure black.

ManufacturerProducts
Canadian SolarAll-Black Canadian Solar All-Black
Hanwha Q CELLSQ.PEAK DUO BLK-G5
Q.PEAK BLK-G4.1
Hanwha Q.Peak DUO
LGNeON 2 Black LG NeON 2 Black
PanasonicHIT BLACK Panasonic HIT BLACK
RECN-Peak Black REC N-Peak Black
SolarworldSunmodule Plus Mono Black Solarworld Sunmodule Plus Mono Black
SunergyDMWA1 Sunergy DMWA1
SunPowerSignature Black SunPower Signature Black
Trina SolarALLMAX M PLUS Trina Solar ALLMAX

Frameless solar panels

The list of companies offering frameless solar panels is much smaller. It’s simply a niche product, and so the market for this category is quite small. Still, there are some choices, including products from Canadian Solar and Trina Solar, which are two of the largest solar manufacturers.

ManufacturerProducts
Canadian SolarDymond Canadian Solar Dymond
Lumos SolarLSX
GSX
Lumos Solar LSX
Trina SolarDUOMAX
DUOMAX Twin
Trina Solar DUOMAX

Conclusion

Given that the list of cons is much longer than the list of benefits, we think that solar shingles are a poor choice at this time for the majority of people. There’s a lot of risk in going with a proprietary technology, a lot of these products are unproven, and pricing is very high.

This could change. Of all the products on the market, the Tesla Solar Roof appears to be the best choice due to the wider range of options and very robust warranty. Unfortunately, its not widely available on the market, making it difficult to evaluate properly. Given the big interest in this product, we’ll be sure to update this article when we know more.

Working with your solar installer

If you’re ready to make the leap and go solar, it’s really important to make it clear to your solar installer that aesthetics are important to you. This is why it’s a very good idea to work with installers who actually come to your house and meet you in person, rather than simply give you a quote over the phone or online.

The installers than The Solar Nerd work with all offer this type of personal service. If you’re ready to go solar now, fill out our form to get started.

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Photo of a solar home.

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