Neither hi-tech gizmos, including iPods, programmable rice cookers, and \u201cBlackberries\/crapberries,\u201d nor intricate infrastructure are my thing. The multiple buttons, options and engineering complexity often overwhelm me because I am a Luddite at heart. However, every once in a while a complex piece of equipment intrigues me. About 15 years ago, I was taken on a tour of the state\u2019s water delivery system, which included a stop at the heart of California\u2019s water project in the Bay Delta. Seeing the massive, finely tuned steel water pumps whirl at high speeds up close was fascinating. I wanted to learn more. The way far smaller \u201csmart meters\u201d I saw during a recent Pacific Gas & Electric tour--which included a model of how the energy consumption information is transmitted from homes to the company\u2019s data center--also grabbed my attention. To find out more, I interviewed two smart meter program managers: Pacific Gas & Electric\u2019s Jana Cory, and Burbank Water and Power\u2019s Fred Fletcher. Advanced meter programs also are being pursued by the state\u2019s two other private utilities and a number of munis, but I focused on PG&E and Burbank because of the contrast in their programs. Swapping out old meters with advanced ones aims to automate a number of utility functions, including meter reading and turning services on and off. The devices also are to tell utilities more about their customers\u2019 energy use to help reduce demand during roasting afternoons, as well as giving the utility and its customers\u2019 feedback to decrease greenhouse gases from avoidable power consumption. Advanced meter program managers seek systems that are flexible and able to adapt to fast-changing technology, including hi-tech home devices, such as smart thermostats and other future computerized appliances expected to be remotely programmable. That\u2019s the challenge. Many of the technologies that smart meters are supposed to hook into are new or not yet developed. Another challenge is that there are no standards or common protocols to follow because the smart metering field is young. Compatibility and transferability are essential for these programs to fly. For example, if you buy a Cuisinart or microwave, you want to be able to plug it anywhere in the state without a problem. PG&E and Burbank\u2019s smart meter programs differ in scope, cost, and type of communications technology. But the two smart meter managers have quite a bit in common. Both Cory and Fletcher are engineers with MBAs. Cory started her career in the aerospace industry, working on radar. She joined PG&E 16 years ago. Her initial comment that she was a \u201cnut for infrastructure\u201d gave me pause for thought, but I overcame my initial prejudice after her unflinching responses to my and others\u2019 questions and criticisms of the program PG&E is launching. Fletcher, who is also assistant general manager of power, has worked in management for 27 years and been with the muni 21 years. PG&E is immediately pursuing universal installation of electric and gas meters at an estimated cost of $1.7 billion. Burbank, which is far smaller, is installing advanced meters at the sites of another 100 of its largest customers at a cost of $500,000. (Its other 100 large energy users already have advanced meters. These 200 customers represent three quarters of Burbank\u2019s load.) If the program is successful, all 45,000 of the utility\u2019s meters are to be swapped out over time. PG&E has installed thousands of meters in the Bakersfield and Sacramento areas, which transmit data back to the utility on electricity use in buildings, homes, and schools. To keep costs down, the utility has adapted a radio device commonly used in computer games, like Playstations, to transmit data from the new meters to receivers on its power poles that then feed the information to its data center over utility distribution lines. \u201cWe can ride that cost curve,\u201d Cory said. PG&E is also testing out another communication mode to transmit electricity consumption data (see CLEANTECH column). Fletcher plans to use WiFi to transmit usage data from his large energy consumers to the utility because he wanted something he could develop quickly. This WiFi network will allow the utility to communicate directly with its large customers\u2019 appliances and machines, such as refrigerators at grocery stores. Another plus, he said, is that WiFi communication is cheap and network system developers and experts are readily available. The utility has crimped energy supplies and faces heavy pressure to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. Fletcher admits he\u2019s \u201cpursuing something that is not yet developed.\u201d However, in the smart meter business that seems to be par for the course because it is an emerging hi-tech business. In spite of many program differences, Cory and Fletcher have the same goals. Increasing the ability to track real time use of electricity they hope will lead to decreased energy use during times of high demand. Demand reduction and increased automation also can help curb greenhouse gases. For example, fewer utility trucks going to homes and businesses to read meters and install upgrades will cut carbon. The reductions can be further increased if the meters can be upgraded remotely with new software as hoped. The expected carbon reductions of either program have not yet been estimated. Neither Cory nor Fletcher support mandatory use of critical peak pricing that gives ratepayers a rate discount during most hours of the day in exchange for high rates during times of high use. They think they can get needed power reductions via rebates. I have my doubts. Voluntary demand response from PG&E customers with advanced meters is estimated to curb 450 MW of demand. Fletcher is in the midst of estimating demand response savings. He said the need for demand response from his customers to meet supply needs and emission reductions helped him make the \u201cbusiness case for smart meters.\u201d It is too early to say which program will be superior, leading to lower costs and greenhouse gases. But hopefully, at a minimum, other utilities will benefit from lessons learned. As with any emerging technology, there are risks. As Cory acknowledged, it is \u201cone step forward and two steps back.\u201d And, the risks rise with higher stakes and costs. Risks from future developments can be estimated and diminished if the two utilities continue to keep close tabs on the latest technology, avoid the hype, and put new devices to the test before a full roll out. As important is the need to peek ratepayers\u2019 interest in their energy consumption. Regulators should require significant and effective public education campaigns to get people as excited about their energy use as their iPods. If I can get interested, that is proof that grabbing and holding customers\u2019 interest is more than possible.