The new economic stimulus package set aside $11 billion in federal funding  for creation of a so-called "smart grid." But it's not clear what this national electricity delivery system will look like, how it will function or who will manage the information required to make the grid intelligent. Local power utilities can install the smart meters in homes that provide data about energy usage and constitute an integral part of the overall smart grid, but it's the cable and telephone companies that have the broadband infrastructure to send this info back to the utilities.

Over the next three years, Progress Energy, a Raleigh, N.C., power company, and the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg plan to equip some 5,000 homes and businesses in west St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach with special meters, sensors and switches to create one of the U.S.'s largest smart grids, according to Tampa Bay Online. If  the $15 million experiment is a success, Progress plans to incorporate smart-grid technology over the next 10 years in its most populated service areas, including Orlando and areas of Pinellas County in addition to St. Petersburg.

Intamac Systems Ltd., a U.K.-based maker of home alarm and monitoring systems, last week said it's negotiating with "major" U.S. telecom carriers to deliver energy metering services to broadband customers in the U.S., reports. Intamac is already working with Bell Canada (which in 2007 started a pilot project to test its ability to deliver energy metering services to some of its broadband customers) and British Telecom, which is planning to add a similar capability to the Home Hub wireless router it offers BT broadband customers.

Of course, utilities might not want to share the smart-meter market with other service providers. Recognizing this, AT&T last week announced a slightly different approach—the company plans to take its wireless network along with "smart grid" sensors and software from SmartSynch, Inc., directly to the utilities themselves, enabling the utilities to monitor their own energy consumption as well as their customers' energy use.

The model for utilities managing their own smart meter information is working for Austin Energy in Texas, which in 2003  became one of the first U.S. utilities to set up a smart grid.  Some 65,000 of the utility's one million customers  are now on its smart meter system, GDS Publishing Ltd. reported on its Power & Energy Web site. Unlike the current electrical grid, where large amounts of energy are produced whether people need it or not, the smart grid would rely on information from energy consumers to determine how much energy to generate; such a grid could even purchase energy from consumers who produce their own power (via solar panels, wind or other means).

Given the wide open market that smart metering represents, even technology service providers are trying to get in on the action. Online search engine Google last month announced that it's developing software called PowerMeter, that will let consumers check out their home energy use in near real-time on their computers. No word on how long the testing will last before PowerMeter will be available for download.

Regardless of how individual homes and businesses are metered, the ideal national clean-energy smart grid would use long-distance, extra-high-voltage transmission lines to move remote clean-energy resources to power load centers and connect to a distribution system that delivers energy and detailed, real-time information about the use of such energy to consumers, the Center for American Progress (CAP)  said in a report released last month. The D.C. think tank (headed by John Podesta, former President Clinton's chief of staff and co chairman of President Obama's transition team) recommended that the grid be run like a national enterprise rather than by a patchwork of utilities, that is, that a central federal authority approve clean-energy projects across multiple states simultaneously (to keep construction of any one piece from being held back).

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