Who Makes the Best Solar Panels?

Solar panels are constructed from solar cells made with silicon or other substances such as cadmium telluride or copper indium gallium selenide/sulfide.   The solar cells are encased within glass panels and are wired in strings to capture electron flow.

Most solar panels are made in Asia although some manufacturers have chosen to focus their operations in Europe and North America to take advantage of lower transportation costs and better quality control.  See Can We Buy Made-in-America Solar Panels

Over the past decade there have been major shifts in solar production from North America to China to Europe and back to Southeast Asia.  Low production costs in China led to the first shift in manufacturing.  Growth in German and other Western demand encouraged some manufacturers to move to Europe; the Great Contraction of 2008 lowered European demand and weakened some of those new entrants.  At about the same time a combination of tariff barriers in the United States and Europe as well as growing quality control issues posed obstacles for mainland Chinese made panels, shifting operations to Taiwan, Korea, and other Southeast Asian countries.

China continues to manufacture most silicon solar cells although assembly into panels is often completed outside the country.   At the same time a number of manufacturers have perfected their operations and are able to compete on the basis of both quality and price with solar manufacturers based in China.

This article focuses on the leading solar panel manufacturers.  Of course, readers should bear in mind that the solar industry is a new and rapidly changing one.  Many companies are consolidating.   Those facing financial obstacles have wound down operations.

Solar panels are currently rated as Tier 1, 2 or 3.   The ratings help distinguish quality which is important not only for endusers but for finance companies such as banks that look to the panels as collateral for loans.  After all, if a borrower were to default on a loan the lender would want to have a strong collateral pool to execute against.

  • Tier 1. These comprise only about 2% of the market.  The key here is credit:  Will the company that provides the underlying warranty be around 20 years from now if the purchaser has a warranty claim.  Companies in Tier 1 are vertically integrated (i.e., they do everything from make the silicon cells to finance and install large systems) and have advanced robotic systems that ensure quality control.
  • Tier 2. These companies have been around for less than 5 years, do not have advanced robotics, and probably are not vertically integrated.
  • Tier 3. Tier 3 generally indicates companies that do not manufacture but simply assemble solar cells made by others.

Note:  Most lists of solar panel manufacturers concentrate on the biggest.  Our list of top solar panel makers below also focuses on the best.   All of these manufacturers are Tier 1.

  • Trina Solar.
    • Chinese.
    • 1gW shipped in Q3 2014 alone
  • SunTech.
    • Chinese
    • 8 gW
    • 1000 customers in 80 countries
    • Bought by Shunfeng in 2014
  • Yingli Green Energy.
    • Chinese
    • Claims 50 million solar panels or over 20 gW, (1.7 gW in 2011, 8 in 2013, 10 gW in 2014)
    • 90 countries
    • Moncrystalline and Multicrystalline
    • N-doped silicon in lieu of standard p-type
    • 2 % efficiency
  • Canadian Solar.
    • Chinese
    • 30 million panels or 10 gW produced
    • 25 year warranty
  • Sharp Solar.
    • Japanese
    • First solar cells developed in 1959
    • Part of large conglomerate with good credit
    • 73 mW utility scale solar array in Thailand
  • First Solar.
    • US
    • 10 gW
    • Thin film module
    • Frameless
    • 25 Year Warranty
    • Superior output over C 25°
  • Hanwha Q Cells (formerly Hanwha Solar One).
    • South Korean, German
    • Founded 2004
    • Part of Fortune 500 conglomerate with strong credit
  • SunPower
    • US manufacturer
    • 25 year warranty
    • Reliable quality assurance
    • Strong credit with Yieldco introduced in 2015 to securitize receivables
    • in 2010 achieved 24.2% efficiency with a monocrystalline
  • Kyocera
    • Part of conglomerate with 14.5 billion in sales in 2014
    • A3 rating by Moody’s (important for warranty protection)
    • Vertically integrated manufacturing process with high quality control
    • Solar production has been shown to exceed nameplate
    • 10th largest in world, tied with SunPower
    • 7 million panels for 1.2 gW

Other companies such as Jinko and JA Solar have been growing rapidly and getting more attention in recent years.