Electric utilities from coast to coast spent much of 2008 rolling out smart-meter installation pilot programs. Expect in 2009 to see this trend expand significantly and also to begin to tie into home automation systems, possibly even accelerating home automation’s own growth on the coat tails of the next generation of how we measure energy.

Home automation systems developers and manufacturers, including ZigBee and Control4, have announced smart-meter initiatives and products in recent months.

Smart meters use microprocessors and RF wireless connectivity to communicate back to power companies’ central server systems. From there, energy flow can be monitored on a house-to-house basis, allowing utilities to interact with the flow of power to homes, enabling the utility to cut the ­power as needed during emergency peak periods to avoid overloading grids and wider, uncontrolled power failures.

But that’s just for starters. The strategic goal of smart metering is to let utilities interact with the home directly. Homes with automation systems on which ride major electrical appliances such as HVAC and refrigerators can have the power consumption of each appliance measured remotely and, ultimately, the utility will have the ability to turn appliances down or off as needed during peak periods. Major home appliance manufacturers such as Whirlpool, GE, LG, and Samsung have already developed fully addressable, IP-enabled devices that would be accessible through smart meters.

The trade-off to the homeowner and builder will come in the form of cost savings. As smart meters track power consumption hour by hour, the utility gains the ability to create differential pricing schemes, charging more, say, for power that is used to run air conditioning during a summer heat wave and less during more temperate periods or overnight, when fewer appliances are in use. Certain devices that consume large amounts of electric power, such as clothes dryers, will also be able to be adjusted to do much of their work during off-peak times.