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You are here: > News > Aug. 11, 2010

Super cheap DIY solar cells for the common man

Could it be that Solar cells have gotten cheaper than 40 cents per watt if your a DIY guy?  Or is that because they are 'seconds' with a lot of downsides that outweigh the advantages of just buying completed units?  eBay pioneer seller, Fred480V, says the cells in his 1kW are not seconds but are the best available from Schott Solar.

by Sterling D. Allan
Pure Energy Systems News
Copyright © 2010

Fred480V's kilowatt of cells, wire, fluxpen, solder for $375.


Last Sunday I got an email from "James James" with subject line: " Sterling, Do you realize how cheap solar cells have become?"

He wrote:

The story goes something like this - a guy in China wanted to save the world with cheap solar cells, and it looks like he has succeeded in doing it. End of story.

Take a look at this ebay auction. This is buy it now, and with shipping included the cost per watt is below 40 cents. This is not unusual, I have been following these prices for months and have already constructed a panel - for about 80 cents a watt (you pay more with smaller quantities).

Here's the user Fred480V's list if items for sale.  He has a great eBay rating with a satisfaction index of 98.4% and feedback score of 4262 (pertains to number of items sold within a period of time) .

Then on Tuesday James added:

This is interesting indeed. I cannot find the original article about the Chinese guy. [...] I was blown away by the sudden low prices of solar cells.  A synopsis of the article is as such:

He had a dream of curing the energy problem with his solar cells, and early on he installed over a megawatt of them on his corporate headquarters. At that time it took him a month to make that many. Soon it took only a week. Then a day, now before noon, and soon to be within an hour.

That is all I remember, and I can't find the original article; but the proof is out there, solar is getting mind-blowingly cheap! I have been watching the trend, and within ONE MONTH the price dropped by ten cents a watt, from about .51 to .3975. This could totally change the energy scene and could easily irrelevate not only other forms of alternative energy, but ALL other forms of energy. 

With efficiencies now reaching 17 percent, many things are becoming possible and I can see a day where solar cells will simply be installed in the power line corridors that already exist, for essentially zero environmental impact power. There is easily enough ground already set aside for power line corridors to provide space for far more solar panels than we would need to power everything.

When you add this success to the newly discovered liquid metal batteries, I can see a day where you pull your motor home up to your house, plug in to your shingles, and power up before leaving on a 1500 mile electric powered trip without a recharge. It could be done, yes yes indeed.

This new development has caused me to back off all my projects, because I feel that they will end up being dinosaurs anyway. The first may end up being the best and I wish the Chinese guy unbridled success.

Doesn't Really Save When Everything is Factored

Meanwhile, I had passed James' original email by a few associates for comment.  This one by Jim Dunn, who knows the industry well, throws a heavy splash of cold water on the excitement that James expressed.

Sterling – This as always alluring until one goes thru the effort of trying to build a solar panel themselves, and trying to get any rebates or insurance on the panel, once installed.

Although buying solar cells for $.45-.50 per watt seems like a good price, there are many other costs involved, including lamination materials, backers, glass, and framing, and many hours of labor (typically over 20 hours per 60 cell panel). The added materials could easily add another $50-85 per panel, plus $160 for labor (@$8 per hour). The resulting 200W panel might end up costing about $300-350, which is competitive with factory built panels, but not equivalent in lifetime use, or net cost after rebates, in most states. 

Also, these cells are not ‘prime’ grade, and may not all be matched for uniform output. The final net panel output will be based on the weakest cell in the lot, as they are all wired in series, so the final panel output may be closer to 175-180W, vs. 230W.

When you are done, the total investment with labor and ‘materials chasing’ costs will likely be well over $1.50/W, probably close to $2/W with labor, but the drawbacks may far outweigh the small savings, since homebuilt panels will not qualify for most state rebates, or REC programs, unless they are CEC and IEC listed, and are UL certified. In addition, if one’s house ever caught on fire, their insurance would probably be void, if the panels may have contributed to the cause of the fire.

The biggest drawback, however, will be product life, as most homebuilt panels are unlikely to last 30 years, the typical life of factory made panels, (which are guaranteed for 25 years !) 

I would not recommend this approach for more than a few panels, unless someone was out of work and needed to keep busy, and was not going to mount the panels on their home, and did not want to receive any state, federal, or utility rebates. A good Science Fair or classroom project.

New Energy Congress member, Richard P. George, Ph.D., who is a solar expert, dittoed what Jim said:

Jim just wrote pretty much what I was going to write. BTW - most major cell vendors are selling their cells for ~$140 per Wp so these cells are almost certainly rejects, probably from a second-tier cell maker. 

Emergency Preparedness

Still, I can't help but think that there is a niche for those with the skills to source good materials and put them together in an economical way, that they could make a living for themselves building and installing such systems.  Maybe the emergency preparedness arena would be a good market, since in a world-fall-apart scenario, people won't be worried about whether or not the panels look good or if they will get federal incentives or even if they will meet code, because all of that will be irrelevant.  They'll just want something that will work, and that they can afford.  Even the 25 vs. 30-year warranty becomes moot when you're just trying to survive from day to day for who knows how long.

Response from Fred480V

I sent the ebay user, Fred480V, a message through eBay, and within 10 minutes he phoned me.  He was the one of the first to start selling solar panels on eBay, and has perfected the trade.  From what I could tell from our conversation, he's the man when it comes to affordable pricing, quality of products and customer service.  At the rate of shipping and receiving he's at now, he's sitting on more than a million dollars worth of inventory.

Here is some of what he said:

These cells [for the 1kW system] are from from Schott Solar and are not seconds.  In the process of manufacturing for panels, the cells come out in sets of 19 strung together.  If there are problems with any one of those 19, then that row is rejected from the manufacturing line, but the other cells are still great.  They ship these to us.  We've got a contract with Schott Solar.  We get them all.  They are the best stuff made.

We've sold millions of these cells.  At one point I had a building full of them.  I have 900 kilos that just came in from German this week.  We have more solar cells than probably even some manufacturers have in the U.S.  At some point, the prices of those solar cells are going go way up, for sure.

If you want to spend a lot for solar cells, then you can.

I have five guys that work for me, and we're always behind.

Just last week we got 1.5 truckloads with 1000 Evergreen Solar 210 Watt panels, brand new.  They retail for $700.  There are some guys selling them on eBay for $450.  I'm now selling them for $350.

I think (not positive, heard rumors) that most states will give you rebates if you build your own panels.

They're not easy to handle.  Not easy to assemble.  But we do this for the common man.  I'm just a common man.  We sell more solar cells to the common man than anyone else in the world.

We have lots of stuff we don't list on eBay: solar glass, wires, lead boxes, eva, laminator, Kevlar.  Had to stop listing.  I got overwhelmed.  Have five buildings.  One is just for cardboard for preparing the packing.

We have a flame-hardened solar cell cutting machine to take broken cells and cut them into smaller sizes.  1x4, 2x4, 3x4, 2x2, 5x6, 3x6, etc.

The stuff that's just junk gets sent to India [where they are good at recycling that kind of stuff into useful things].

I'm a licensed electrician in Chicago since 1978, and have been through three electrical schools.

He said he'd send me a 1 kW system tomorrow so I can see it for myself (no charge).  He said he liked this article and how it presents both sides objectively and links to his ebay account.

I'm looking forward to getting it and plan to install it in our Safe Haven Villages intentional community project.  He'll go down in my history book as the first free energy device supplier to come through on providing a working free energy device for my use.  Four others have promised, and I look forward to those materializing eventually as well.  No, Solar is not exotic free energy, but I do like this "common man" thing he talks about.  It's definitely in keeping with the maverick spirit that is so typical in the world of exotic free energy.  So in a spirit of full disclosure, you now know that I've been given a $375 one-kilowatt solar system for free because of this story.

Major kudos to Fred480V.

Get one of his systems while the price is so low.  He said several times that the price will most likely be going back up pretty soon.

[See Got the Cells; Initial Observations below]

# # #


Amazing Deal

On Aug. 14, 2010, 6:00 pm mountain, Jim Dunn phoned to say:

"That really is a good deal, particularly if the cells are as described.

"The problem for individual DIY’ers is in the laminating process, being able to properly seal the ‘sandwich’ to keep moisture out of the panel. The home made panels are plagued with the problem of the lamination ultimately leaking and fogging up and the output falling off. A professional laminator is really required to produce a long lasting (20-30 year) panel."

Jim is going to get in touch with Fred to put him onto some laminators to maybe be able to produce and sell a more finished, long-lasting product. Jim is also involved with some solar educational programs in some local schools that he said these cells would be great for.

* * * *

Silicon Gel for Encapsulation

On August 16, 2010 11:01 AM mountain, Keith Durand (email on file) wrote:

Hi Sterling, 

I have some important information on laminating solar panels for the DIY crowd. I worked for a photovoltaic cell and panel manufacturer for a number of years. The encapsulants used for lamination were always a hot topic as the industry was dominated by EVA encapsulants which had a known "browning" problem (which may have been fixed in the past 15 years). We had a test module that had been in a desert for 10+ years, tempered glass in the front and back, and it looked brand new. I was told the encapsulant was silicon gel and that it was the best but not well-suited to manufacturing. I mention it here because I believe it may be possible to build a module with silicon gel as the ecapsulant, in your garage that would last as long as others manufactured in multi-million dollar facilities.

After leaving the PV manufacturer I worked for SEIA, then UPVG (Utility PhotoVoltaic Group). 

[...] When I was the Director of the PV division at SEIA I was constantly getting calls from people on the fringe that took way too much time; something you probably have experienced. For your info only, I was employed by Mobil Solar which was sold and became Schott Solar in Billerica, MA; from there I went to DC to work at the Solar Energy Industries Assn (SEIA). Three of my friends from Mobil Solar founded Evergreen Solar. 

Another method we considered for those wanting to use EVA as the encapsulant: two industrial heating pads and a bladder compressor. The uncooked panels are put between the heating pads which is in a bladder/compressor (actually two bladders, above and below the heating pads. This would heat/melt the EVA as the bladders inflate and apply pressure; the end result is a fully cooked laminated module. The industrial laminators used in module manufacturing cost $300-400k compared to about $3k for the bladder system. This could be a system for developing countries -- although I still think the silicon gel is pretty low tech for what might be a longer-lasting module.

- - - -

On Aug. 14, 2010, 6:00 pm mountain, Jim Dunn wrote:

Keith – Interesting idea.

I believe we may have met at Schott, when it was ASE Solar [...].

If your idea worked reliably, and didn’t have heat distribution or ‘scorching’ issues, it could be very interesting, and much lower cost.

Would you still recommend a Tedlar backer, or could something else be used ?

Also, the Tempered glass could be a big cost issue in many remote countries.

* * * *

Got the Cells; Initial Observations

On August 19, 2010 6:01 PM mountain, Sterling D. Allan wrote:

I picked up the cells yesterday from the post office (they arrived a few days prior).

Here's some feedback.

It turns out that there are not any instructions that accompany the cells.

When I asked Fred about this, he said: 

"We are working on a book.  There are 100s of YouTube videos, some using these cells, building panels -- very good info on many ideas -- much better then we can do."

Neither was there a packing slip with a list of contents.

I've not had any experience with these Schott cells before and had no idea how brittle they are. The first one I tried to pick up like I might pick up most things, immediately snapped in half.

I asked Fred about this, and he replied: 

"We add 8 extra for the breaking in shipment and assembly.  We have found that if we say that then everyone has 10 broken can we send the 2 replacement cells.  So when we get a email saying there are 2 broken cells can we send the cells we can inform that we have added 8 extra."

Also, as I looked through the cells, I noticed that most of them have what look like a burn marks on the sides. 

Fred said "these are common." 

It looks like I have a lot of work ahead of me to get this to the point of being operable. And I imagine I have quite a bit of expense remaining to procure the materials needed to finish out the project. So that will set me back time-wise, as I'll need to wait to accrue the funds.

I do appreciate Fred supplying these to me for free, and I'll look forward to the next steps to gradually finish this project.

* * * *

See also

Resources at

Page composed by Sterling D. Allan Aug. 1, 2010
Last updated September 02, 2010 


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