Europe Plans 'Smart Meter' Rollout

The U.S. still may have doubts over so-called electricity smart meters, but on the other side of the Atlantic, Europe is pushing ahead. Last week, European politicians voted to roll out smart meters in every building across the Continent by 2022, and set an 80% installation target for 2020. The technology relays info about household electricity use and prices to consumers, who can then alter their habits to cut energy bills often by over 50%.

For sure, installing smart meters could allow utilities to charge more for electricity during certain times of the day. But by giving households a better understanding of how much energy they’re using — and how much it’s costing — chances are most people will save by changing how they use electricity. Smart meters also could improve energy efficiency, which would help utilities meet potential CO2-offsetting targets if/when a U.S. federal cap-and-trade carbon scheme is unveiled.

To see what smart meters could lead to, take a look at Amsterdam. The Dutch capital is combining the technology with other improvements, such as so-called 'smart grid' infrastructure, which uses electricity network sensors to trim citywide energy use. Companies such as IBM and Cisco also have signed up to offer new services to smart meter-ready homes -- including the installation of household display panels that convert data from smart meters into comprehensible info for customers.

The Obama administration has put aside $4.5 billion of stimulus package money for smart grid investment, so this technology looks set to gain a higher profile. Already, Xcel Energy is piloting the technology in Boulder (Colo.), with plans to expand the project to other cities.

Critics say smart meters could lead to higher electricity prices, and to an extent, they are correct. The goal, after all, is to give consumers more info about their energy habits, thus providing an economic incentive to use the dishwasher or wash clothes at times when electricity is cheaper -- and demand is lower.

By aiming to install smart meters across the Continent by 2022, Europeans have put their weight behind the technology. The question now is whether the U.S. will do the same.

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