A critical milestone on the road to a new American energy future is completing the advanced metering initiative: installing smart meters. A new report by Parks Associates, an international research company specializing in emerging consumer technology, states that the United States has thus far swapped out 8 million residential electromechanical meters for digital smart meters, and there should be 13.6 million installed by the end of the year.

Parks’ research covered more than 60 companies and 10 alliances, including home-area networks, component suppliers, smart meter manufacturers and smart grid enablers. The report, “Residential Energy Management: Company, Alliance & Technology Profiles,” states the 8 million deployments will open up significant opportunities for third-party companies. This is evidenced by the larger companies that have entered the market. Cisco, Google and Microsoft are now offering Web-based solutions hoping to attract utilities planning smart meter roll-outs.

Further growth is being driven by consumer demand, private investment and the desire of utilities to better manage peak-load demand, and from the federal stimulus program that allocated $11 billion for smart grid initiatives through 2010. The research showed that consumers are enthusiastic about conserving power. Parks found that approximately 50 percent of American homes have installed energy-efficient lamps and are making other energy-saving decisions, such as efficient appliances. Roughly the same number of households have programmable thermostats, but only about 60 percent actually use them. Since smart metering is designed to better manage consumption and hopefully save consumers money, acceptance should be enthusiastic.

The majority of U.S. utilities are studying, demonstrating or in the pilot deployment phase of smart metering, but many are fully committed. A few are almost there. In California, Pacific Gas & Electric began its smart meter program in 2006, has installed 1.4 million and plans to finish 10.3 million by 2011. Southern California Edison is field-testing 7,000 smart meters and hopes to deploy 5.3 million units by 2012.

Many smaller utilities are outpacing giant investor-owned companies. Austin Energy, a community-owned electric utility serves 410,000 customers in the Austin, Texas, area. It has 220,000 remotely monitored meters installed and plans to complete deployment to all customers by the end of 2009. Parks reported that cooperative utility districts have installed smart meters for 20 percent of their residential customers and municipal and public utilities have reached 12 percent, while investor-owned utilities have not achieved 10 percent.

A smart meter, of course, is only the tip of the tail of the big dog that everyone wants to adopt: the smart grid. There is a lot yet to do, but it is good to know that the road is open and we are on our way.