California's three biggest utilities are charging customers nearly $4.6 billion to install millions of "smart meters" at homes and businesses. These newfangled meters, the utilities promise, will revolutionize energy usage by giving consumers far greater control over how much they pay for power.
Unfortunately, the meters could be outdated before they're even operational.
Yet the utilities are also laying the groundwork for advanced "smart grid" networks that will use broadband technology for managing power supplies and distribution.
The upshot: smart grids and smart meters that, in essence, won't speak the same language.
"Relative to the meters you have now, the new ones are pretty smart," said Kurt Yeager, executive director of the Galvin Electricity Initiative, a nonprofit group focused on improving the national power infrastructure. "Relative to the meters they should be installing, they're pretty stupid."
The utilities insist that lower-speed meters will function fine with a high-speed grid, and that ratepayers shouldn't be concerned about being sold a pig in a poke.
"The two-way communication is the key component," said Paul De Martini, director of Edison's "SmartConnect" program, which includes the utility's $1.7-billion rollout of 5.3 million new meters from 2009 to 2012. "Whether it's narrow-band or broadband is a secondary consideration."
Perhaps for the moment. The real question is how smart grids will be used five or 10 years from now.
Nobody could have known a decade ago that high-bandwidth services like YouTube and video downloads would one day dominate the Internet. Nowadays, you'd be crazy to access the Net with the slowpoke technology available back then.
The lower-speed meters will cost ratepayers about $100 each. Broadband meters would cost as much as five times more.
The utilities know that what customers get from smart grids today could be very different from what they'll expect in a few years. But they've decided to place short-term economic considerations ahead of long-term technological prospects.
This runs contrary to federal and state policy.
In December, President Bush signed into law the Energy Independence and Security Act, which, among other things, promoted creation of smart grids to better manage the country's power supply.
California regulators directed state utilities to pursue smart-grid technology several years ago to give consumers more control over their energy usage.
The idea is that interactive connections would give utility customers real-time information about energy rates and let them plan their activities accordingly. Instead of doing the laundry in the afternoon when power is expensive, you'd be able to see when rates are lower and save money by doing the wash then.
More intriguingly, a new generation of appliances could be programmed to automatically pick times when energy prices are lower, or when renewable energy such as wind or solar power is more plentiful.
Consumers also would be able to access months of usage and billing records, and run programs to help them determine the best ways to economize.
Meanwhile, grid managers would be able to quickly pinpoint troubles during outages and allocate resources accordingly.