Have you heard of smart meters? Do you understand them? If so, you've had a leg up on me until now. I've heard of smart meters here and there from the odd news article or website, but to me the grapevine has been more like an invisible beehive: all buzz and no honey. Where are they? Why don't I have one yet, and will I have to buy it to be part of the system? Do they really save energy? Is Big Brother counting my kilowatts for me now, or what? These are the questions that don't keep me up at night, but I suspect more and more people are asking.

Photo of a smart meter.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of Energy

We talked about what a Smart Grid [1] is in February. The standard electrical grid is a collection of transmission lines, substations, transformers, and more that deliver electricity from the power plant to your home or business. A Smart Grid includes digital technology that allows for two-way communication between the utility and its customers, and the sensing along the transmission lines.

A smart meter, in the context of a Smart Grid, is your home's connection between your electricity needs and the rest of the grid.

So, what's the difference between a regular digital meter and a smart meter, and how can a smart meter save energy? In a word: Interactivity.

A traditional electrical meter measures the total consumption of electricity in your home. Smart meters [2] can communicate with in-home displays to let you know how much energy you're using, and even tell you the time of day the energy was used. You can use this type of information to monitor usage during peak versus off-peak hours and, as a result, manage your energy efficiency and costs. In addition, this energy information coming to and from your home through your smart meter can be run through a home energy management system, which will allow you to view it in an easy-to-understand format on your computer or hand-held device.

All of this starts to sound like an episode of The Jetsons, but it's really just a brilliant idea that is beginning to become a reality. If you don't have a smart meter, don't worry—your utility will provide it as part of your service, and you certainly won't get one if a Smart Grid isn't available in your area.

If you're as curious about Smart stuff as I am, check out SmartGrid.gov [3]—this site is packed with easy-to-absorb information. The Smart Grid Information Clearinghouse [4] is also a good source of information, including a map of projects in the United States [5] and plenty of consumer-oriented publications [6].

While you're waiting for this fascinating technology to come to your neighborhood, there are plenty of ways to cut your electric bill by following Energy Savers tips [7]:

Andrea Spikes is a communicator at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which assists EERE in providing technical content for many of its websites.