Solar Charger Unfolds Kickstarter Success Story

Wisconsin solar tinkerer and middle school teacher Joshua Zimmerman was aiming to raise $5,000 with his Folding USB Solar Cell Kickstarter, or maybe a little bit more, but just 12 days into its monthlong run the project has gathered in more than $80,000 in pledges.

No, he does not plan to quit his day job. Not yet, at least.

folding solar charger

image via Kickstarter/Brown Dog Gadgets

“My hope is that I can start selling these online and in local stores in order to be self sustaining,” Zimmerman said in an email to EarthTechling. “But that is most certainly a long term goal, and a whole lot more financial risk than teaching is right now.”

Zimmerman’s life has been turned a bit upside down, in a good way, by a simple piece of hardware he designed – three solar cells on black canvas fabric that weighs half a pound, unfolds to 18 inches by 7.5 inches and produces 5 volts at 1 amp – a 5-watt photovoltaic charging system. It has a USB plug, so any device with a USB port on it that needs charging, you’re in business. At full sunlight it will charge an iPhone in about three hours, Zimmerman says.

There are a lot of solar chargers out there, including foldable 5W models. But Zimmerman, based on his experience selling small solar kits through his Brown Dog Gadgets website, felt there was still plenty of space in the market for something handy and affordable. As he explained on his project page:

Hikers and campers wanted a system they could charge up during the day and then use at night, cyclists wanted a system that could keep their GPS units running all day long, and mission/relief groups wanted an inexpensive solar charger that worked with just about everything.  This stretched the limit of what I could make by hand or put together in a kit.  After working with some overseas manufacturers I came up with a simple solution that is not only easy to use, but insanely practical.

That manufacturer is in China, and Zimmerman told us the company was “kind enough to help me take my prototype (or as I like to call it my ‘giant mess of wires’) and help me streamline it into what you see today.”

The 5W charger can be had for a $55 pledge. A 7W charger is also available at the $70 level.

Zimmerman was floored that the Kickstarter took off the way it did – in his first update, posted the day after the project went up, he wrote that he never expected “to get to 200%, let alone 300%.”

He’s since blown well past those figures, though with expenses, he hardly feels like he’s struck it rich. “Between the credit card fees (3%), Kickstarter fees (5%), shipping fees (10-15%), and taxes (35%) that doesn’t leave a whole lot of money left over after material costs,” he said in an email. Still, it’s a pretty amazing turn of events for a guy who says he self-taught himself electronics two years ago “because I needed a hobby and Wisconsin winters suck.”

Pete Danko is a writer and editor based in Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in Breaking Energy, National Geographic's Energy Blog, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.