Build your own solar panels? E-book scam!

Ads like these are all over the Internet these days:

"FINALLY REVEALED: The secrets to making your own solar and wind power for less than $200."
“Hi, my name is xxxxx and I'm going to help YOU reduce your power bill by 80% or even eliminate it completely. Not only that, if you create more energy than you use, your power company will actually pay you! After 15 years in the renewable energy industry I know what works and I know how you can start saving money.”

Sounds too good to be true, doesn't it? Buy this Ebook for $49, spend $200 on Ebay and at the hardware store for parts, build your photovoltaic (PV) panels or wind turbine in a weekend, wire it up, and 80 percent of your electric bill is paid for. Build another turbine or set of solar panels and the power company will be paying you!

It IS too good to be true, and buyer beware. Ads for this Ebook appear under dozens of different affiliate domain names via as networks. Earth4Energy, Energy4Home, GreenDIYEnergy, Power4Patriots, and so on. The Ebooks from various sellers are slightly different, but the basic content remains the same. The websites all use the same “site-in-box” design, and even failed the Consumer Report's WebWatch guidelines about scam websites. Many refer to government conspiracies to keep electricity prices high or to ban websites and information. Other deceptive marketing practices include running websites that purport to “review” the E-book, while in fact multiple affiliates conspire to simply review each other's nearly identical products. Worst of all, consumers have been complaining that after signing up for unlimited internet access to the material billed monthly, it's almost impossible to cancel.

In fact we have a hard time keeping up with blocking these ads from our websites; we block one URL, and the same thing turns up the next bday on a similar URL. Why block them? Because of the deceptive ways in which this Ebook is marketed, and because the content has so many errors and so much bad advice that the uninformed consumer has a good chance of burning their house down by following the Ebook guidelines.

Marketing:
First, the marketing. The implication is that for $200 plus the $49 Ebook, you can save 80% on your electric bill. One little tiny problem, though—there's no mention in the advertisements about the cost of all the balance-of-system equipment required to tie into the utility grid and power your home AC circuits, or of the mandatory government and utility inspections, permits and fees. You find THAT out only after you buy the book.

The FAQ section on one website does give you a tiny bit of warning:
“Will I learn how to wire the renewable power into my homes AC breaker panel?”
“Wiring your own power into the AC breaker panel is very dangerous and is illegal unless it is done by a qualified electrician. You can save a lot of power by running items straight from your inverter but if you must bring the power into the home AC breaker panel than we recommend you contact a local electrician.”

So, the advice here is to run extension cords around the house from your inverter to your fridge, air conditioner, dishwasher, and TV? My actual copy of Earth4Energy confirms this: “If you do not wish to go as far as connecting your system to the breaker panel you can simply run your appliances straight from your AC inverter. Running your appliances straight from the inverter is easy and a very cheap option. ”
Your local electrician and local Fire Marshal may have something to say about that really dangerous idea...
And even the Ebook itself leaves out the fact that your “local electrician” is either going to a) be rolling on the floor in paroxysms of laughter, or b) run back to the van in a panic and drive at high speed directly away from your location. Why?

Because the basic content in all versions of these Ebooks is this: Build your own PV panels by gluing cheap surplus or broken PV cells from Ebay onto a piece of plywood and wiring them together into a PV module, and build your own wind turbine by sticking 4-foot PVC pipe blades onto a small surplus tape drive motor from Ebay.

Build your own PV modules?
Let's look at the PV problem first. Commercial PV modules usually have a 25 year warranty. The manufacturers can provide this because everything is hermetically sealed and superbly connected under cleanroom conditions, and then mounted in sturdy aluminum frames. Renewable energy (RE) enthusiasts have been building their own PV modules out of surplus and broken cells for two decades now, and they always run into the same problems:

  • Glass fogging from humidity and temperature changes: Individual PV cells are very fragile, and must be protected from hail and other impacts by a tempered glass cover. In commercial modules, there is no air inside and the cells are embedded on a sturdy plastic substrate. When building them from scratch in your garage, it's unavoidable.
  • Corrosion of electrical connections: Any water or water vapor intrusion can eventually degrade electrical connections. A wire home-soldered to the flat back of a PV cell is likely to contain voids unless the solder job is perfect, and corrosion grows rapidly in those voids.
  • PV module flexing during wind: This one is both insidious and dangerous. You may not see or hear the flex, but any small movement of the homemade plywood flat surface onto which the PV cells are glued will weaken electrical connections. If they finally break loose, you have relatively high DC voltage applied directly to flammable wood. This is a serious fire hazard! And the more modeules you have connected in series or parallel, the worse the danger.

The Earth 4 Energy E-book also claims that PV system owners frequently “upgrade” their PV modules and these can be had for free or at low cost: “The old panels usually get thrown away because they are not the latest and they cannot be sold. ” That's not quite how it works, ask any PV installer...the market is hot for used modules, and most folks keep their original array and simply add a second one (if it ain't broke, don't fix it). The only ones you'll see for free were smashed during shipping or installation, and these are usually nearly useless.

The FAQs on the Earth4Energy website do mention the number of panels one might need to power a home, though in a very vague way:
“Can I power my whole home with just a $200 system?”
“The solar power system that you can make for $200 is our portable model and this will not produce enough energy to power a whole home. However, we have given instructions on how to build on this system by adding multiple solar panels and a larger battery bank/inverter. By expanding the smaller $200 system you can power much more of your homes energy needs.”
“How much power does the Earth4Energy solar panels produce?”
“Our manual provides instructions to build 100 watt panels and you also get the instructions so you can join multiple panels together to raise the output to 1000 watts +.”

Build your own wind turbine?
It can be done, and we specialize in teaching people how to build their own wind turbines. And simply sticking PVC pipe blades on a surplus DC computer tape drive or treadmill motor to make a wind turbine, as these instructions show you, is not a new concept, either—it's been done for decades and is well-documented at no cost on the internet. But such tiny generators are only suited for a kid's high school science fair project, not powering a house:
• These surplus motors can take, at most, a 4 foot diameter rotor (2-foot blades), while the Earth4Energy Ebook suggests 4-foot blades for an 8-foot diameter rotor and 500-1000 watt output. That is completely absurd. Because:
• At most, these motors can be counted on for 100 watts.
• The bearings are not designed for the thrust loads of a wind turbine rotor.
• The motors are not weatherproof
They are not wound and wired properly for energy production (they burn out easily in high winds). PVC blades are again fine for science fair projects, but give terrible performance with a legitimate wind turbine. With the generator performance so dismal, though, nobody is likely to notice that the blade design is also ludicrous.
The Earth4Energy plans present a wind turbine design that has no way to protect itself from high winds—there IS no furling system. That's asking for a catastrophic and dangerous disaster, full of flying chunks of blade and toppling towers. It's downright dangerous, even for a science fair project.

Grid-tie issues:
Tying your renewable energy system into the utility grid is a serious undertaking—an error or pirate install could kill the lineman who is climbing a nearby electric pole, trying to restore grid power during a blackout. And that's why any attempt by you to grid-tie your system will come under such careful scrutiny from myriad governmental and utility company regulators, and liable for any deaths or injuries that result from your installation. Approval of a DIY install of plywood PV modules and tape drive motor wind turbines is extremely unlikely.

And, even if you do proceed with a pirate install, remember that as part of an official power purchase agreement, the utility installs a new, special meter on your home. If you don't have this and it's not activated, the power company will BILL you at their normal rates for all energy you produce, instead of crediting against your usage! Oooops.

Conclusion:

If you want a good science fair project for your kids, building solar panels and windmills is fun, but you don't need this expensive Ebook to do it—the information is plentiful on the internet, for free. Same with the many pages about how renewable energy systems work. If you are looking to build a small battery backup system for charging cell phones, etc. during a disaster, you'll want high reliability, and this system is rickety. Good UL-listed solar panels with a 25-year warranty are extremely cheap right now, and you can buy one for less that it would cost you to build your own.

The deceptive marketing pratices and bad information that surround Earth4Energy and its dozens of affiliates give the entire home renewable energy industry a bad name. People feel ripped off, and they come to the conclusion that “renewable energy doesn't work.” That's the LAST thing that those of us in the RE industry want to hear!