Solar power remains the most viable renewable-energy option for most households in America. In fact, unless you have falling water on your property or live in an area where zoning allows for wind towers, solar may be your only option — save for geothermal heating and cooling. Solar is where great incentives are, too. Federal tax credits and more state and local programs offer substantial assistance in purchasing a solar electric system. (Bing: What federal tax credits are available for solar energy?)

For people who live in states with the best rebate programs — and therefore a developing solar installation industry — it's typically best to find a qualified installer to get the job done. You may even find that the rebates depend on this.

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In other areas where a solar industry has yet to develop, it may require a strong do-it-yourself sensibility or the patience to bring local electrical contractors up to speed on solar. In either case, it will help to know your brands.

To that end, I've highlighted three of the best-in-class photovoltaic modules, after looking at Sharp, Kyocera, Suntech, Sanyo, SunPower and others. All of these use crystalline photovoltaic technology. Amorphous modules such as Uni-Solar have their good points but are neither the most efficient nor the least expensive. Thin-film technology is noteworthy for its low cost — and low efficiency — but is not readily available at the residential installation level.

Most efficient home solar panel: SunPower

SunPower (© The Daily Green)

SunPower modules are the most efficient solar panels on the market, coming in at an amazing 19% efficiency — 18% on their signature black modules. While these numbers may seem low, they are approximately one-third better than the average crystalline module at converting available sunlight into electricity.

Further, SunPower signature black modules blend nicely into most roof applications, making them a more aesthetically pleasing option for many.

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It should be noted, however, that SunPower modules are not available for individual purchase. They must be purchased through the manufacturer-qualified dealer/installer network.

Most innovative: Westinghouse Solar

Westinghouse Solar (© The Daily Green)

Westinghouse recently acquired and renamed Akeena Solar's Andalay product. According to the company's CEO, Barry Cinnamon, the panels are true AC modules because they deliver household current directly.

Normally, solar panels deliver DC power that must run through an inverter to be usable in typical household applications. But the Westinghouse units have microinverters built in. They also come with a relatively easy plug-and-play racking system that entails 80% fewer parts, according to its website.

The significant benefit of the AC technology is that it brings great flexibility to system size and design. No longer must modules run in "strings" to achieve necessary voltage output.

This brings two benefits. First, any number of modules can be designed into a system, not just increments of, say, four. Secondly, the issue of shading is dramatically reduced — affecting only the modules that are shaded, not the whole system.

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It's worth noting that you can also add microinverters to many standard DC solar panels, with products from Enphase and others.

Westinghouse modules are available through the Westinghouse dealer/installer network and through participating Lowe's retail centers.

Most bang for your buck: Kyocera

Kyocera KD Series (© The Daily Green)

The Kyocera KD Series solar modules hold their own in terms of quality. They achieve a high level of efficiency — up to 16%, compared with an average of 12% to 14% — have a 20-year warranty and typically cost 10% less than similar products from other brands, depending on manufacturer-dealer pricing arrangements.

Kyocera modules are readily available from most suppliers.

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