Did you know that the electric meter was invented by Thomas Alva Edison in 1888, and that the ones we’re using now aren’t a major improvement from his design? So said Thomas Kuhn, president of the Edison Electric Institute and moderator of a panel on the forthcoming smart grid in New York this week.

(I’d like to consider Kuhn definitive on the invention of electric meters, but according to this Wired story, the actual inventor was Oliver B. Shallenberger for Westinghouse. Someone else can fight this out.)

One thing we definitely do know is that smarter meters are coming, ones that won’t require a meter reader to visit your home or get attacked by your dog. A meter that will allow you to know just how much juice each of your appliances is using, and (as Kuhn put it) realize that having a refrigerator in your garage just to keep your six-packs cold is not a prudent idea.

One of the earliest realizations of this is an orb that glows red when your electric use spikes. Surveys show that consumers consistently reduce their electric use by five to 15 percent when they have access to devices as simple as this.

Smart metering, and the smart grid, are an integral part of the electric vehicle (EV) revolution. As EVs begin their entry into the marketplace this year, they will plug into a grid that’s basically pre-war and set up for disaster. Just imagine the melting transformers and blackouts as hundreds of thousands of commuters all get home at 6 p.m. and plug their high-lead EVs into the 220-volt wall socket.

If done right, utilities will be able to add millions of EVs to the grid without building any new power plants, but (as one utility speaker after another at the forum pointed out) it requires a smart grid so that cars can be charged at off-peak nighttime hours. A smart grid would reduce electric demand by 25 percent, and that’s vital. The homeowner should be able to schedule a charge at less than the equivalent of $1 a gallon from his or her cell phone, and the utility should be able to take your car (or your refrigerator and air conditioner) briefly offline when it needs a lighter load.

Kuhn said that 58 million smart meters will be installed by the end of the decade, and a deployment map shows where those rollouts will be. You’re in luck if you live in California, Texas, Oregon and Florida, but you may be waiting a while in the Dakotas. The Obama administration put $4.5 billion in stimulus funding into the smart grid, but the meters cost “in the low hundreds” each, so it will only go so far.

The utility leader in installing smart meters on its own initiative is California’s Pacific Gas & Electric, which has already installed 3.7 million. It puts one in every two seconds, and says it will have 10 million in place by 2012. PG&E also has 40 percent of the nation’s installed solar capacity, according to smart grid director Andrew Tang.

PG&E was also an early champion of so-called vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology, which would allow EVs to “give back” by sending electricity from their batteries back to the grid during a charging session. The idea is that if a utility saw an approaching peak load, it could grab some kilowatt-hours from the plugged-in EVs, then give it back when the crisis passed.

But Tang says PG&E has concluded that the plan won’t work, at least for the next 15 years, because V2G would put today’s EV battery packs through too many life-draining cycles. Utilities would pay something like 15 cents per kilowatt-hour for the electricity they borrowed, but Tang said that would hardly be a good deal if your battery life was cut in half.

So forget about that form of V2G for a while. More immediately practical for consumers are the programs offered by an increasing number of utilities, such as Constellation Energy in Baltimore, which gives ratepayers rebates for lightening their load. If customers agree to allow their air conditioner (and, soon, their water heaters, to be shut off for brief periods, they could end up with $200 (at $1.50 per kilowatt-hour) in their pocket over the summer — and a smaller electricity bill, too. Some 97 percent of the customers who tried Constellation’s program signed up for a second year.

According to Mayo Shattuck, president and CEO of Constellation Energy, Peak Rewards program is currently serving 250,000 Baltimore customers. Under the agreement, air conditioners can be remotely shut off for one or two hours eight times in the peak season. If it gets really hot, there’s a manual override. Shattuck said that Constellation has estimated that its customers will be able to recharge their EVs at night for the equivalent of 70 cents a gallon. “And that’s a hell of a lot easier than dealing with $4 gas prices,” he said. “The megatrend is that we’re moving toward electric cars refueling in the evening with carbon-friendly power.” He included nuclear in that calculation, though some readers may not see it that way.

Coming soon are smart appliances with built-in microchips that will also be able to turn themselves on at off-peak times, said John Caroselli, a vice president at National Grid. The company is pushing a Three Percent Less campaign that gives consumers incentives to reduce their electric load 3 percent a year for 10 years. And National Grid is one of 11 utilities testing Ford’s Escape-based plug-in hybrid car, which is equipped with a touch-screen interface for interaction with a smart grid.

The smart grid is humming, and the first stages should be in place as EVs hit the road.

MNN homepage photo: 3alexd/iStockphoto