Last week, utility Southern California Edison quietly launched a program that could push the smart-meter-to-home-energy-device connection into the consumer marketplace in a big new way. Now the question is, will utility residential customers buy into the plan?

The offer, in simple terms, is for a $50 cash-back rebate for a simple, LCD-screen energy display unit from Vancouver-based Rainforest Automation called the Energy Monitoring Unit, or EMU. As of last week, Southern California Edison is making Rainforest’s EMU devices available to select customers, via six Best Buy stores in Southern California, as well as online.

It’s far from the first such utility-sponsored, meter-to-home-device program in the country. But it’s a bit different than most I’ve heard about so far, based on a few key figures. The first is the number of customers it’s targeting. SoCal Edison plans to contact about 100,000 of its customers via email in the next week or so to let them know that they’re eligible for the rebate, Chris Tumpach, president of Rainforest Automation, told me in a Friday interview.

The second is the value of the rebate itself -- $50 cash back, for a device that comes with a suggested retail price of $59.99, Tumpach said. That adds up to a cost of $10 for a device you can take home, plug in, and, after a short setup process with the utility, start getting eight-second updates on your household energy usage, as well as accumulated usage, pricing info, and any other simple messages the utility might care to pass along that can fit on the EMU’s small screen.

It’s all part of a big new push in California to make smart meter available to utility customers. SCE and fellow utilities San Diego Gas & Electric and Pacific Gas & Electric have deployed smart meters through almost all of their territories, and they’ve also been piloting ZigBee meter-to-home technologies for years now.  But they’ve been slower to meet the California Public Utilities Commission’s requests to turn those smart meters’ ZigBee radios on en masse.

Beyond the cost and complexity of turning on a whole new communications and control channel for multi-million-endpoint AMI networks, there’s the question of which technologies to sink investment into, and when to do so. PG&E has argued that the industry should wait for a key standard for home automation, Smart Energy Profile 2.0, to be formalized before proceeding with commercial-scale deployments.

Still, the CPUC has kept up the pressure. In October it asked the state’s big three IOUs to start providing meter-to-HAN connectivity on some kind of consistent basis, as well as to make HAN-enabled devices available via third parties. That’s driven the state’s utilities to rush ahead with their plans to get partners’ devices on store shelves, Tumpach noted -- San Diego Gas & Electric is also planning to offer Rainforest’s EMU for subsidized sale in the coming weeks, he said.

Expect a lot more home energy players to get involved in California’s new push for meter-to-home connectivity. Startups like Tendril, EnergyHub, Energate, AlertMe and literally dozens of others, along with demand response providers like Comverge, thermostat giants like Honeywell and Cooper Power (now part of Eaton), networking providers like Digi and a host of other vendors already have millions of energy-smart home devices up and running in the United States. All would no doubt love to get a piece of whatever market emerges in California.

The AMI-to-HAN Connection

But there’s a catch to that emerging California market -- it has to be enabled via smart meter ZigBee radios. Most of today’s utility-to-home energy control networks, on the other hand, run either via one-way paging or radio systems, which offer the utility direct control over household loads, or broadband to the home, which enables the real-time communications and data capture that next-generation smart grid pilot projects are after.

Even smart meter data is coming via internet to the home. In Texas, where big IOUs like Oncor and CenterPoint Energy have deployed millions of ZigBee-enabled smart meters, customers can log onto the Smart Meter Texas portal and check their household energy data. But that’s day-old data, collected via the 15-minute to hourly AMI backhauls to the utility, then (usually) run through a back-office batch process overnight before being posted for customers to check out.

Smart meter-to-home connections are much rarer, despite a statewide ZigBee device registration program, and a number of programs from Texas retail electricity providers like Reliant Energy and TXU. Reliant gave away 10,000 Tendril IHDs last year to promote the Smart Meter Texas web portal, and has been connecting customers to smart thermostat services from Nest and Ecofactor this year. In Oklahoma and Canada’s Ontario province, utilities have signed up tens of thousands of customers for smart meter-to-home energy pricing and demand response programs.

As for third-party sales of HAN gear, Rainforest has been selling its EMUs into the Texas market for about a year, Tumpach said. But so far, those sales have lingered in the single-digit thousands range, Tumpach said. The SCE $50 rebate offer, available through the end of this year, could add up to about as many customers as Rainforest already has in Texas in one fell swoop, he noted, assuming that about 5 percent to 10 percent of the 100,000 customers receiving the offer follow through with it -- a pretty typical response rate for utility offers of this kind.

Smoothing the Move to Smart Meter Connectivity

All these HAN devices are using a previous version of Smart Energy Profile, known as 1.0 (or 1.1, or 1.x, depending on the latest update), which is specific to ZigBee. SEP 2.0, on the other hand, will include Wi-Fi and the wireline HomePlug communications standard as well. That opens up a new world of connectivity once SEP 2.0 is made an official standard some time next year.

For example, Tumpach noted that today’s Rainforest’s EMUs are simple, display-only energy devices, which have to come preprogrammed to respond appropriately to commands from their “master” utility. But in the future, Rainforest is planning to include Ethernet connectivity in its EMUs, to allow them to connect to home broadband networks, he said.

While ZigBee is the radio of choice for most of North America’s smart meter deployments, there’s no reason that these communications have to run through the meter, instead of, say, home broadband or cellular networks. Canada’s Ontario province is one example of a market where multiple channels are being explored --  while every utility in the province has deployed smart meters, about half have chosen meters without ZigBee HAN radios. There’s a small but growing number of homeowners investing in their own home automation and energy-saving devices that run on good old-fashioned Wi-Fi networks, from the high-end $250 Nest learning thermostat to the simpler $99 models on sale from Radio Thermostat of America at Home Depot

In the case of California’s big three utilities, however, the CPUC has made it pretty clear that they’re going to have to “push” a lot of consumer data through their AMI networks to their millions of residential customers. Utilities face technical, economic and regulatory issues in turning on their meter-to-HAN systems, Tumpach noted. For example, SCE and Best Buy had originally intended to link activation of the devices to Best Buy’s network, but found the IT integration behind the idea hard to handle, he said.

As of today, SCE has settled on a different method, which involves tagging each EMU device sold with a unique identifying number, then asking homeowners to log into a utility web portal (or call an 800 number) and provide that code to have their device synched up to their home’s smart meter.

Tumpach estimated that about 1 in 10 homes has trouble linking their in-home display to the smart meter via ZigBee, usually because the meters in those cases are behind walls, in basements, or otherwise located in places where the low-power mesh wireless networking technology has trouble reaching. Often, moving the in-home device to a room closer to the meter fixes those problem, he said -- but in cases like apartments with meters in the basement, sometimes wireless has to be replaced with powerline communications, broadband or some other form of connection, he noted.

While different technologies contend to network smart meters to customers, efforts are also underway to standardize the data flowing to utility customers as well, in the form of standards like SEP 2.0 and OpenADR, or public-private partnerships like the White House-backed Green Button initiative. We’re already seeing startups and coders writing apps to take advantage of smart meter data to allow utility customers to do things like share home energy scores via social networks, or analyze household power usage to find out which appliances are ripe for replacement with the latest energy-efficient models.

It’s a stew of data and ideas for using it, in other words. Utility residential customer management and efficiency experts like Opower and Efficiency 2.0 (bought by startup C3 this year) are tackling the twin challenges of managing the data behind multi-million-customer programs and actually getting homeowners to care more about energy efficiency. Big data startups like AutoGrid and Bidgely are deploying technology built to analyze data from Google and Facebook-sized customer bases for utility purposes. Smart-meter-to-home connectivity is one piece of the puzzle, but it’s far from the only one.