Get Smart

05/25/2011 02:45 pm ET

Remember sometime back in the roaring '90s when the idea of electronically controlled "smart" homes first popped up? Back then it seemed pie-in-the-sky and Jetson like.

But the advent of smart metering and ongoing work to create a smart grid truly are first steps to that fabled smart home. Amazingly, Italy is far ahead of most of the world on getting smart.

Who knew a whopping 85 percent of Italian homes have smart electricity meters? Way back in 2001, Enel, the country's largest utility, started a program to upgrade its grid and equip 40 million homes with smart meters.

The result? Enel is saving 750 million each year from being able to run plants more efficiently based on user data from the meters and time-of-day pricing, according to an article in Spiegel International. And, a fast deployment of the smart meters helped Enel recoup its 3 billion investment faster.

Perhaps as important, smart customers who check their in-home meter monitors and plan some energy-intensive tasks (laundry, for example) for a less-expensive time are also saving money.

The U.S. is not extremely far behind in the smart meter concept (about 8 million meters installed). In some places, however, utilities have encountered customer resistance from consumers who don't want their electricity data public. Privacy advocates have a point, and utilities such as PGE have realized they have to work to specify customer benefits, and not just utility gains.

Most of the news about smart meters is good, however. As the Kill-A-Watt has shown, measuring home electricity usage generally results in lower usage. Now a whole new crop of Kill-A-Watt style devices that capture the date from smart meters and send it to our mobiles and iPhones are helping us manage our energy - you can remotely turn off a left-on lamp, for example - thus truly fulfilling that old promise of a smart home.

Vampires be gone. We can get smarter with energy use.

For more articles by Graham Hill click here.