The Mississippi state government is taking a page from what has been until now a utility playbook and installing smart meters on its own.

It's the first project of its kind, but Jackson, Miss.-based SmartSynch, which is doing the job, may be hoping to popularize the concept.

Last week, Mississippi announced it would install about 1,500 smart meters at government buildings across the state, using $3.75 million in federal stimulus funds and SmartSynch technology for linking the meters via cellular networks from providers such as AT&T (see Your Electrical Meter Becomes a Cellphone).

That's a small project, compared to the million-plus smart meter deployments underway at utilities around the country (see 8.3M Smart Meters and Counting in U.S.).

Given that utilities have been the only entities to deploy smart meters en masse so far, this move by a state government is unusual.

It's also unusual in that it's being partially funded from stimulus grants – but not from the $3.9 billion set aside for smart grid projects, which has seen applications from perhaps hundreds of utilities (see DOE Issues Rules for $3.9B in Smart Grid Stimulus Grants and Green Light post).

Rather, the Mississippi Development Authority is using $3.75 million out of the $40 million it is getting from the Department of Energy's $3.1 billion State Energy Program. Those are funds being given to states to deploy energy efficiency programs and technologies.

While utilities may be in the lead in deploying smart meters, there are benefits to state governments to deploy their own, said Henry Jones, SmartSynch's chief technology officer.

Given that states are served by multiple utilities with different schedules – or none at all – for installing smart meters, "If you're trying to compare the performance of state buildings on a square footage basis, you're going to have to hope and pray that they're all using the same vendor," he said.

And for states with utilities that may not have smart meter plans, "If you're relying on the utilities to band together and provide the taxpayer with how much electricity" state government buildings are consuming, "you're going to be waiting around forever," he said.

Jones also said that SmartSynch's use of cellular networks to carry smart meter data helped reduce the costs of the Mississippi project. That's a stance that SmartSynch has taken elsewhere as a selling point, compared to smart meter communications systems based on utility-owned wireless or power line technologies (see Green Light posts here and here).

Jones didn't provide many other details on the program, including whether SmartSynch was working with other state governments.

But in a Monday article from Dow Jones Clean Tech Insight, Ravi Raju, senior vice president of marketing, said SmartSynch was in discussions with 27 other states to see if they're interested in similar projects.

As for what Mississippi will gain from its own smart meter network, the first aim is to "provide data to help agency officials get a better sense of their energy consumption and identify areas for savings," according to the Mississippi Development Authority's request for proposals for the project.

Such savings include the ability to "spot and eliminate unnecessary power use and other problems, such as idle computers left turned on or malfunctioning equipment," the RFP stated.

Most utilities, on the other hand, recoup the investments they make in smart meters first by cutting the costs of sending employees out to read manual meters, and secondly through enhanced ability to detect power outages and other problems on the grid.

Eventually, most utilities plan to link smart meters to home energy monitoring and control systems to cut down peak demand energy use. That's the idea of a "home area network" that can turn down smart appliances and thermostats to save energy. But those systems are now in pilot stages only.

Without the operational benefits available to utilities, it isn't clear if the Mississippi state government can achieve the same kind of up-front savings from its smart meters, said Ben Schuman, an analyst with Pacific Crest Securities.

"Smart meters alone, without any access to energy pricing or energy management programs, don't provide much value to the end customer," he said.

On the other hand, "If SmartSynch is going to operate an energy management program, that could be interesting," he said.

Eventually, Mississippi would like to connect its smart meter network to utilities to "achieve even greater grid-wide efficiencies and savings," according to the development authority's RFP.

Mississippi is served primarily by two large utilities – Entergy, which has about 400,000 customers in the state, and Southern Co., which has about 150,000, Schuman said. About 30 smaller utilities and co-ops also serve the state, he said.

Southern Co. plans to deploy about four million smart meters by 2012, but most of those have been in Georgia and Alabama to date (see Green Light post). The Atlanta, Ga.-based utility is using meters from Sensus.

And Entergy's Mississippi subsidiary, beyond applying for $3 million in stimulus funds for a 5,000-smart meter pilot project, has said little about its smart meter plans.

On another note, SmartSynch said Thursday that it has installed technology to allow the University of Mississippi to post smart meter buildings energy use data on Twitter, Facebook and RSS feeds. SmartSynch could expand that kind of functionality to other customers, including the state of Mississippi, Jones said.

SmartSynch may also be the beneficiary of a smart meter project being proposed by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which is already a customer. The country's largest municipal utility may be seeking federal stimulus funds for the project (see LA's Utility Seeks $200M Smart Grid Stimulus Grant).