Chances are, smart grid technologies, will be like languages: They'll change at the borders.

ZigBee and mesh networking are winning favor with utilities in the U.S. In Sweden and some other European countries, however, concrete construction is somewhat common, which creates potential problems with maintaining a signal via ZigBee from inside the house to an external transmitter, said Meera Balakrishnan, Freescale's Global Segment Leader for Building Control. Partly as a result, power-line networking has been adopted in many areas in Europe, including the 30 million meter network owned by Enel in Italy.

And in China, the issue is cost. "They are looking at sub-1GHz," she said. "We are talking cents" for radios for meters, she added.

To that end, the chip company – formerly the silicon wing of Motorola – is showing off new products and demos at MeteringChina in Beijing. The products range in a spectrum, depending upon the communications systems required by a utility and whether the silicon will be used to monitor silicon, but also water and gas. One chip, for instance, combines an 8 bit microprocessor, a tiny bit of flash and an LCD driver for remote meter reading.

An AMR (automated meter reading) meter in China might have to sell for $26 to $60. A similar meter in U.S. or Europe might go for $82 to $120, depending on the capability. Potentially, a very basic meter that can be read "remotely" by someone in a nearby car with a radio receiver could be built for $10 in China.

"We have the know-how. We have the components. The challenge now is getting them to work better," she said. "The utilities each have their own preference."

Others are exploring the Chinese market as well. Intel recently signed a three-year collaboration with the State Grid Corporation of China (SGCC). The SGCC will run grid simulations on Intel servers as well as jointly set up a lab to experiment with ways to incorporate embedded chips technologies into transmission equipment. The SCGG controls the grid that covers 80 percent of mainland China.