A municipal WiFi network can do more than just provide café Internet access. On Monday, Burbank Water and Power started rolling out such a network to monitor and respond to the California utility's energy demands.

The utility will be using Jackson, Miss.-based SmartSynch's smart-metering technology, which will use the network to enable a two-way conversation between customers' electricity meters and the utility.

Smart metering helps utilities measure customer electricity consumption, allowing them to better manage the grid throughout the day, such as by strategically discharging and storing power according to demand. Smart meters also can help utilities quickly zone in on a power outage -- instead of having to wait for customers to phone in the problem -- and pinpoint residents or businesses with higher-than-average energy consumption rates.

Burbank Water and Power said it sees smart metering as a key to meeting the 33 percent renewable-energy target the city plans to meet by 2020.

"I don't think utilities can intelligently bring in anything over 20 percent renewables without doing some smart-grid applications," said Fred Fletcher, the utility's assistant general manager. "I don't think it's possible to do an intelligent job of determining how effective conservation and energy-efficiency programs are without daily readings of electricity, particularly during peak periods."

But using WiFi for metering can be tricky -- there are interference issues and many towns don't yet have full WiFi coverage. Still, if SmartSynch is successful, Burbank Water and Power could help prove whether the approach works.

The utility decided to go with a WiFi system based on SmartSynch's meters because it costs far less than other options, Fletcher said.

Compared to other systems that would have racked up costs of $7 million or more, the utility expects the WiFi system to cost about $5 million, he said.

That price tag doesn't include the cost of the meters, which would boost the total price to about $20 million.

But Fletcher said it's worth the money because he expects the system to cut the utility's energy needs by about 10 megawatts. If the utility were to meet 10 megawatts worth of demand by building a power plant instead, it would have cost at least $10 million to $15 million in capital, he said.

"Right now, we do not have much spare capacity, so our decision is either to build plants, buy more power or do that," he said. "I don't want to go and buy more power and we've got good environmental reasons not to build more plants."

By owning and operating their own WiFi networks, utilities also can avoid extra fees, like those tagged to data that passes over cellular networks, SmartSynch said.

The system also allows two-way communication, which gives utilities the ability to request and receive energy information as the energy is being used, the company said.

Burbank Water and Power is in the middle of a $50,000 pilot test, which started in September and is expected to last through December on its 20-acre campus.

After the test is completed, the utility plans to extend the network to its 100 largest customers.

That might sound like a small percentage of the utility's 55,000 customers, but the top 100 energy customers actually use up 50 percent of the electricity, said Henry Jones, chief technology officer at SmartSynch. And putting WiFi nodes up at those customers' buildings will actually end up covering 30 percent of the city with WiFi, he said.

The project's engineering and design will begin next month, Fletcher said, adding the utility expects the project to be completed by July 1.

But there's a reason testing is needed. A few unknowns, like the impact of WiFi interference, come with the lower price tag. A passing truck or another device with the same frequency transmitting at the same time could temporarily muck up the data feed.

This also means that a WiFi approach might not work in dense urban areas such as New York City, where skyscrapers made of concrete and steel could block signals. And towns that don't have full WiFi coverage could incur higher costs due to additional installation fees.

Even Jones said WiFi gives smaller utilities -- such as Burbank, which services an 18-square-mile area -- a clear advantage, but might not make sense for utilities that cross into multiple states.

Burbank is one of many utilities trying out different metering technologies, Fletcher said.

According to a 2007 report by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, a number of utilities are planning advanced metering installations in the next several years. Within a year's time, utilities have announced they will install more than 40 million advanced meters between 2007 and 2010, the report said.

Policy-makers and utilities out to improve the country's energy efficiency are driving interest in smart metering, said Dan Delurey, executive director for industry group Demand Response and Advanced Metering Coalition.

One example is the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, which in February called for state commissioners to provide investment incentives for advanced metering.

Delurey said it’s too soon to tell which smart-metering technologies will see the most success, and added there is room for more than one.

Rather than a one-size-fits-all market, he thinks some approaches will work better than others for utilities with different geographies and coverage sizes.

"It's not a question of one tech winning, or policy-makers picking a winner," Delurey said. "It's really about the data."