Solar Panel Cost Guide | Your Complete Guide to the Cost of Solar in 2018

Solar Panel Cost Guide | Your Complete Guide to the Cost of Solar in 2018

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Courtney Johnston, Purchasing Manager at Wholesale Solar
COURTNEY JOHNSTON, Purchasing Manager at Wholesale Solar​

Editor’s note: This article was updated on 11/7/18. Solar panel prices change on a regular basis. Check our solar panels page for current pricing.

Welcome to our comprehensive solar panel cost guide, updated for 2018! Our goal with this article is to answer the first question many people have when they start their research: how much does it cost to go solar?

First, we’ll go over the factors that affect solar panel prices. Then we’ll look at individual panel prices, complete system prices, and historical pricing trends to see how the cost of solar might change in the future.

  1. How Much Do Solar Panels Cost in 2018?
  2. Complete System Pricing (Grid-Tied)
  3. Complete System Pricing (Off-Grid)
  4. Solar Panel Installation Costs
  5. Factors Affecting Solar Panel Cost
  6. Historical Pricing Trends

How Much Do Solar Panels Cost in 2018?

Let’s get right to the good stuff. Here’s how much our most popular solar panels cost in 2018.

For the sake of comparison, we will start with the standard 60-cell or 72-cell panels that we use by default in our system packages. These are the “full-sized” panels you are going to use when you build a complete system for your home or office.

ManufacturerPrice (as of 10/30/18)Output (watts)Cost per wattMaterialMade in...
Astronergy$185280W$0.66PolyMalaysia
Astronergy$195325W$0.60PolyMalaysia
Mission Solar$249305W$0.82Mono PERCAmerica
Mission Solar$275360W$0.76Mono PERCAmerica
SolarWorld$219285W$0.77MonoAmerica
Panasonic$453330W$1.37MonoJapan
LG$560360W$1.56MonoKorea

And here’s the picture for small panels with more limited use cases. These are the ones you’ll use on your RV/boat, industrial worksites, and other remote applications.

ManufacturerPrice (as of 10/30/18)Output (watts)Cost per wattMaterialMade in...
Solarland$324.80160W$2.03MonoChina
Solarland (Industrial Rated)$337.13150W$2.25PolyChina
Sunpower (flexible)$253100W$2.53FlexibleFrance

These panels are more expensive because they are produced in smaller quantities. They may also have extra features, like the flexibility of the Sunpower panels, or the heavy-duty Solarland panels which are certified for industrial use.

In summary: “standard” solar panels cost anywhere from 70 cents to over $1.50 per watt, depending on their output, quality, and where they are manufactured. When you look at more specialized panels that are manufactured in lower quantities, the price climbs up above $2/watt.

Not sure how many panels you need to power your home? Read this: “How Many Solar Panels Do I Need?”

Solar System Costs (Grid-Tied)

Panels only represent about half of the total cost of your system. Other parts like inverters and racking also contribute a significant piece of the pie.

Let’s look at prices for complete grid-tie system packages. This chart shows the costs to buy all of the equipment for your system, but it doesn’t include costs like shipping or installation. (We’ll look at the total installed costs later in this article.)

The prices in this table come from real grid-tied systems featured on our site (prices current as of 11/7/18).

Not sure what size system you need? Grab a copy of your electric bill and look for your kilowatt hour (kWh) usage. Then input that info into our solar cost calculator, which will tell you what size system you need to cover your monthly usage.

System SizeCost Per WattCost (before tax credit)Cost (after tax credit)Monthly Output
2.88 kW$1.64$4,711$3,298398 kWh
3.6 kW$1.52$5,486$3,841498 kWh
4.32 kW$1.48$6,393$4,476598 kWh
5.4 kW$1.40$7,559$5,291747 kWh
5.76 kW$1.42$8,207$5,745797 kWh
7.2 kW$1.41$10,136$7,095996 kWh
8.64 kW$1.34$11,590$8,1131195 kWh
10.8 kW$1.35$14,596$10,2171494 kWh
11.52 kW$1.33$15,373$10,7611594 kWh
12.96 kW$1.32$17,102$11,9711793 kWh
14.4 kW$1.34$19,289$13,5021992 kWh
18 kW$1.32$23,774$16,6422490 kWh
21.6 kW$1.32$28,617$20,0322988 kWh
28.8 kW$1.30$37,412$26,1883984 kWh

Solar System Costs (Off-Grid)

Off-grid systems cost a lot more because you need to add batteries to store the energy you generate. Batteries are a significant expense. We estimate you might spend $8,000 to $13,000 to power a 5 kW system for the first 10 years of ownership.

The chart below shows the cost to purchase an off-grid system with an appropriately sized battery bank. While lithium batteries are much more expensive up front, the cost of ownership levels out in the long run because they last 2-3 times longer than lead-acid batteries.

We have paired the system with our least expensive battery bank – in most cases, a set of appropriately-sized Crown flooded lead-acid batteries.

Take a look at our comparison of lead-acid vs. lithium batteries to see the math on battery costs for off-grid systems.

System SizeCost Per WattCost (before tax credit)Cost (after tax credit)Daily Output (summer)Daily Output (winter)
1.22 kW$6.03$7,360$5,1525.49 kWh2.74 kWh
1.83 kW$5.00$9,155$6,4098.23 kWh4.12 kWh
2.74 kW$3.72$10,206$7,14412.35 kWh6.18 kWh
3.66 kW$3.28$12,019$8,41316.47 kWh8.23 kWh
4.57 kW$2.90$13,262$9,28320.59 kWh10.29 kWh
5.49 kW$2.84$15,573$10,90124.7 kWh12.35 kWh
7.32 kW$3.26$23,894$16,72632.94 kWh16.47 kWh
9.15 kW$2.82$25,780$18,04641.17 kWh20.59 kWh
10.98 kW$2.95$32,442$22,70949.41 kWh24.7 kWh
13.72 kW$3.03$41,622$29,13561.76 kWh30.88 kWh
16.47 kW$2.70$44,451$31,11674.11 kWh37.06 kWh
18.3 kW$3.45$63,095$44,16782.35 kWh41.17 kWh
21.96 kW$3.09$67,870$47,50998.82 kWh49.41 kWh

Solar Panel Installation Costs

In addition to equipment costs, you’ll need to figure out a way to install your system. One option is to have a local contractor install it for you. In these cases, they may charge you anywhere from 75 cents to $1.50 per watt for the installation. $1/watt is a good benchmark to estimate installation costs.

If you want to figure out your “all-in” cost of going solar, pick a system above and find the wattage. 1 KW = 1000 watts, so for example, a 7.8KW system is 7800 watts. At $1/watt, a contractor might charge you an additional $7,800 to install your system.

There are several factors that influence how much your installation will cost, the main one being the availability of qualified contractors in your area. To learn more about installation costs, check out our article: “How to Find a Solar Installer You Can Trust.”

The other option is a do-it-yourself installation. It turns out this is easier than it sounds – it’s a matter of bolting the racking together and fitting the panels in place. Even without DIY experience, many of our customers can get their system built in a weekend and save thousands on installation costs.

Factors That Affect Solar Panel Prices

1. Technology advancements.

The first computer, the Harvard Mark I, filled an entire room and took more than 15 seconds to complete one division problem. Now, we can buy powerful computers that fit in our pockets for just a couple hundred dollars.

I bring this up because solar panels are following the same growth trajectory. Thanks to rapid technological advancements, panel prices have consistently dropped 6-8% per year.

For example, in 2012 you could buy an Astronergy 235W panel for $275. Today, you can buy a 280W Astronergy panel for $185.

We’ll look at historical pricing trends later in this article, but this is the main factor that dictates how much solar panels cost. Advancements in technology have made panels much more affordable, and future developments will shave prices even further.

2. Market Forces (Tariffs, Subsidies, etc.)

While prices have trended steadily downward over the past few decades, we’ve also hit a few “bumps in the road” in the form of tariffs, regulations and other political influence on the solar industry.

For example, recent tariffs on materials like aluminum and steel, as well as products specific to the solar industry, caused a temporary uptick in prices earlier this year.

However, these tend to be blips on the radar rather than lasting changes. The long-term trend shows that solar panel prices are consistently falling.

3. Panel Material

There are two main types of panels: monocrystalline and polycrystalline, or mono and poly for short. Mono panels have traditionally been more efficient than poly panels.

However, new variations on panel technology (including PERC and half-cut cells) have made the distinctions less clear-cut. Today, you can find poly panels equipped with newer technology which are comparable in efficiency to traditional mono panels.

In the end, your best bet is to check the spec sheet for an efficiency rating, then go with whatever panel gives you the best bang for your buck. Take a look at our article on the best solar panels of 2018 for a side-by-side comparison.

4. American vs. Imported

American-made goods cost more to manufacture, mainly due to the high cost of labor. Solar panels are no exception: American panels cost more than those imported from places like China or Germany.

Companies like SolarWorld USA and Mission Solar make their panels in America, while Astronergy panels are a bit cheaper because they import from their manufacturing plants overseas.

5. Wattage

As technology improves and panels get more efficient, the wattage on each panel goes up. The physical size of the panel doesn’t change (most are 60 or 72 cells), but the efficiency means you can squeeze more production from each cell.

When I put solar on my home, I held out until Astronergy upgraded from 305W to their new line of 310W panels. That was in 2014. Now, the successor to that line of panels is sized at 335W. In four years, technological advancements allowed them to squeeze an extra 25 watts of output into the same physical form factor.

As you compare panels, the best metric to go by is cost-per-watt. As long as you have enough room on your property to build your system, don’t worry too much about size or wattage for individual panels. Just focus on how much you pay per watt of output for your entire system.

6. Supply & Demand

The last big factor is supply and demand.

60 and 72-cell panels cost less because they are widely used and manufacturers can sell them by the container. The economies of scale drive the manufacturing price down, which makes the cost-per-watt on these panels much lower.

On the other hand, specialty panels (like flexible/industrial panels or those with very low wattage) get produced in small quantities. The smaller manufacturing run means higher production costs get passed on to the consumer.

Historical Solar System Pricing Data (Since 1998)

Lastly, here’s some context on the historical price of solar power systems over the past 20 years. This chart shows the average cost to install a residential solar power system for every year dating back to 1998.

This data has been stitched together from reports by SEIA and NREL.

YearCost-per-watt (systems)
1998$12.36
1999$11.75
2000$10.70
2001$11.13
2002$11.14
2003$10.04
2004$9.37
2005$9.02
2006$9.07
2007$9.20
2008$8.84
2009$8.43
2010$7.14
2011$6.31
2012$5.39
2013$4.69
2014$4.27
2015$3.69
2016$3.36
2017$3.13

If you’re just starting to research the solar landscape, hopefully this data is a good starting point to help you figure out how much it costs to go solar. For more personalized advice, grab a copy of your electric bill and head to our solar cost calculator, which can tell you what size system you need based on your energy usage patterns.

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