Southern California Edison will launch a $1.63 billion smart-metering program for its 4.8 million electric customers starting in 2009, the utility said Friday.

The Rosemead, Calif., company plans to install meters that will provide prompt energy-consumption data to the utility as well as to its residential and business customers, who will be able to see their electricity use and cost in near real-time when they log on to an SCE Website.

The utility received approval to launch the program, called SmartConnect, from the California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday.

SCE has signed a $480 million contract to buy 5.3 million meters and communication equipment from Liberty Lake, Wash.-based Itron, which will provide 80 percent of the meters for the program, said Vanessa McGrady, a spokeswoman for SCE.

The utility also is looking for another metering supplier, she added. Some of the utility's 4.8 million electric customers have more than one meter.

More utilities throughout the country are replacing old meters that have little or no wireless-communication technology with new ones that provide energy-use data and equipment-failure alerts to utilities (see Silver Spring Smart Meters Get New Home). Some new meters can provide similar data to consumers directly.

Utilities envision a future when either they or their customers can program all manner of appliances, from home or remotely, to adjust their energy usage throughout the day. The hope is to reduce energy usage during times of peak demand, when electricity rates are higher, to not only save energy but also to prevent blackouts.

But that future won't be here soon. "Smart" appliances aren't available on the market today, and they would have to come with the same kind of communications technology used by the metering network in order to talk to each other.

SCE will use meters with the ZigBee wireless communication technology, McGrady said. The utility also is working with appliance makers to design products using ZigBee.

Other utilities, however, have opted for meters using WiFi or even WiMax, which offers longer-range and higher-bandwidth than WiFi (see Green Light post).

SCE plans to install the new meters from 2009 to 2012.

Its electric customers might see a 1.5 percent increase on their bi lls as a result of the program, McGrady said.

The utility expects its customers will start using less energy as a result of the program, however, leading to lower bills in the future.