Home & Garden

Lincoln Hills pair’s off-grid power re-energizes their budget

John Poswall and his wife, Peg Tomlinson-Poswall, have created their own Stonehenge on their 50-acre Lincoln Hills property, powered by solar and wind.
John Poswall and his wife, Peg Tomlinson-Poswall, have created their own Stonehenge on their 50-acre Lincoln Hills property, powered by solar and wind. mcrisostomo@sacbee.com

John Poswall looks out from his terrace and sees “the future of home energy.”

Solar panels on a hillside of his Lincoln Hills property make the most of frequent sunny days. Scaled-down turbines atop the roof harvest the Delta breeze.

And best yet, a battery system no bigger than a standard water heater stores that clean energy for when it’s needed. The battery pack allows the Poswall home to use solar power at night and wind on a calm, cloudy day.

“It really is amazing,” said Poswall, a Sacramento attorney and author. “It’s the first of its kind in California. PG&E said they never saw anything like this.”

As novel as this combination now seems, its creator predicts that soon solar-wind-battery systems will be commonplace in many new homes, particularly in solar- or wind-friendly Western states.

“What (the Poswalls) have is the starting point for where most (new) homes in the U.S. would be in the next three to five years,” said Farid Dibachi, co-founder of JLM Energy Inc.

Based in Rocklin, his company primarily creates commercial systems that allow companies to maximize their energy savings, often through the creative use of renewable energy. The Poswall house became a model project to see how such a system could be used in a residential setting.

“Clearly, this is the wave of the future especially for an area like ours with both summer sun and winter wind,” Poswall said. “It’s the future of home energy.”

On Oct. 30, the Poswalls’ 50-acre property received state approval as California’s first solar-wind-battery-powered residence, he said.

“Frankly, it seems it was so new that PG&E wasn’t even sure what we had to do for approval,” Poswall said, “but it all finally came together.”

This groundbreaking example fits the Poswalls’ home, nicknamed Springhill Gardens. John and his wife, Peg Tomlinson-Poswall, created their own Shangri-la on former cattleland in the rolling Sierra foothills. Now, that pasture has its own Stonehenge, one of many fanciful additions.

Crowning a hilltop, the 4,300-square-foot house is made for entertaining with vaulted ceilings and spectacular terraces overlooking the valley views. As a longtime food pro, Peg has a restaurant-worthy kitchen where she hosts cooking events and fund-raisers for such causes as the California Food Literacy Center. For her work as well as hostessing, she keeps two freezers and an industrial-size refrigerator packed with food.

“We have to keep the power on,” John joked, “or Peg would lose $1,000 in meat.”

An avid gardener, John has planted more than 20 themed gardens including the picturesque Darrell F. Corti Oriental Garden, dedicated in 2012. Featuring plants from different countries, the gardens form a series of evolving, living “rooms” and represent the Poswalls’ far-flung travels from Mexico to Europe to Asia.

A large pond stocked with trout retains water for the property. Miles and miles of drip lines irrigate the gardens’ many plants, from its formal rose garden to its bamboo groves.

Like many Sacramentans, the Poswalls cut back water use during the 2014 drought. But even with efficient irrigation, power is needed to move that water to where it’s needed.

How much power is what shocked the Poswalls to change.

“We started hitting $1,700 a month on our PG&E bill,” John said.

“Sometimes even more,” Peg added. “Those bills really hurt.”

John suspected air conditioning for driving up the electric bills, but an energy audit showed the irrigation system as the biggest power user on their property.

After investigating solar systems, Poswall discovered JLM Energy, thanks to a friend. The more he learned, the more he became convinced that it would be a perfect option for Springhill.

“The biggest joy for me was that I can turn the air conditioning below 79 degrees and (John) doesn’t complain,” Peg said with a smile. “When that happened, I had happy feet.”

John estimated the total cost of the solar-wind-battery project including installation at about $80,000. Renewable energy incentives from PG&E can bring down the cost of such systems considerably. “I’m sure this system will pay for itself,” he said.

Adding to his collection, John is planting a new succulent and cactus garden around the solar panels, “a natural combination,” he said.

Peg enjoys the little windmills. “I love the wind turbines,” she said. “They look cool.”

The wind turbines add an option in winter when cloudy days shut off the solar stream. Mounted on the guest house over the garage, the quartet maneuvers with the breeze.

Each turbine measures 3 feet across and needs enough elbow room to keep from banging blades. On smaller roofs, the height of the units can be staggered to avoid blade contact, Dibachi said.

“On some commercial projects, dozens of wind turbines line up along the whole roof,” he said.

“The wind turbines will be most efficient in the winter when there is less sun,” Poswall said. “And both of these systems channel into a battery storage system so we have on-site reserves instead of selling all excess back to PG&E.”

That’s the advantage of a self-contained system: Storage. When the meter runs backward, some of that extra energy can be kept for later instead of pumped back into the PG&E grid. It represents a potential huge savings for the homeowner. Plus on a cloudy, calm day, the lights – and freezer – still stay on.

Called Energizr, the battery system/power hub connects the home to the power grid while managing renewable energy and storage. It uses lithium iron phosphate batteries.

The Poswalls’ system uses 15 batteries packed into an 18-inch wide unit, capable of storing 8.3 kilowatt hours of power.

The solar system uses 83 panels, including 23 dedicated to running the irrigation system.

Solar panels alone aren’t enough, John noted.

“Most people don’t know you need power to run the panels,” he said. “If there’s a blackout, the solar system won’t work.”

That’s another benefit of this system: It’s practically blackout proof.

As for the turbines, they each generate 240 watts at 35 miles per hour. That can add up quickly on a windy day.

The turbines may become as ubiquitous as satellite dishes, Dibachi said.

“This is the only turbine that is designed to be roof-mounted as opposed to pole-mounted,” he explained of JLM’s product. “It is getting a lot of attention with some Fortune 500 companies as they look for ways they can used renewable energy not only to generate energy from the wind but also do so in a aesthetically pleasing and architecturally conducive manner.”

Often such big companies also have a lot of roof.

Wind-powered residential applications are just being configured, making the most of the roof space they have.

“Interestingly, Third World countries are more anxious for this combination of technologies,” Dibachi said. “Just like the cell phone technology that brought the wireless voice and data communication platform to Third World countries by allowing them to leapfrog the land-line technology, JLM’s technology is getting a lot of attention from Third World countries that are excited about leapfrogging the power utility grid and (building) self-generation systems for the use of their individual buildings, homes or businesses.”

In many places, power grids may not be reliable or even exist, he added. In addition, generating clean energy at individual homes makes building massive power plants unnecessary.

For the Poswalls, the difference is in their utility bill. They remain “on the grid” as part of PG&E’s Solar and Net Energy Metering program, but so far, they’ve been able to meet all their energy demands with their own power.

“Most solar systems pay for themselves in five years,” John said. “But I expect this one to pay for itself in two.”

“I’m very glad we finally did this,” Peg said. “Everybody should have it.”

Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.