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Smart meters coming to a utility near you

A global rollout of smart utility meters is under way, driven by the need to use energy more efficiently, with as many as 250 million expected to be installed by 2015.

After 100 years, the lowly utility meter is poised for a digital upgrade, with the installation of up to 250 million expected over the next six years, according to a new forecast.

Pike Research published on Monday a research report on smart meters that predicts installation to ramp up at a 19 percent annual rate through 2015.

Martin LaMonica/CNET

Smart meters use wireless networking to shuttle information back and forth between utilities and customers. So far, the communications link has been used mainly to report back usage for monthly billing, but there are new applications aimed at efficiency.

Consumers can, in some cases, get a real-time read-out of electricity consumption or see a graph of a full day's use. Smart meters are also designed to help consumers take advantage of off-peak rates. Utilities are generally interested in moving usage to off-peak times and running power plants more efficiently.

A person could, for example, schedule a dishwasher to run or charge a plug-in vehicle in the middle of the night. Information from the smart meter signals when cheaper rates are in effect.

Pike's forecast notes that the push to smart meters is global, driven by government interest in energy efficiency. The U.S. Department of Energy's smart-grid grant program announced last week is expected to result in 18 million smart meter installations across the nation. About 3.5 percent of the world's meters can be considered "smart," with the number set to grow to 18 percent by 2015.

Despite the spike in installations, there are a number of technical barriers to overcome, including a lack of standards. In particular, there is a "jumble" of different neighborhood-area networking technologies to carry data from homes back to utilities. The most advanced smart meters have the ability to connect to home-area networks.