What can the smart grid do for the climate and the economy – and how can Congress help out?

That was the topic of a Friday meeting of U.S. smart grid industry leaders with Nancy Pelosi and other members of the House Delegation at the United Nations climate change summit in Copenhagen.

And while the venue was the international summit, the focus of the talks was to be retaining U.S. companies' preeminence in the global smart grid market, which could reach $500 billion by 2020.

That's according to Chris King, chief regulatory officer for smart grid software startup eMeter, and founder of the industry group Demand Response and Smart Grid Coalition, which includes a who's-who of U.S. smart grid companies.

King laid out some of the promise of smart grid for job growth – it could support up to 300,000 jobs in the U.S., he said – as well as policies that he said could keep the nation's industry competitive with challengers such as China.

"The scary thing is, the Chinese and other countries are right on our tail, taking the lead away from us – and they have stronger national policies," he said.

For example, China has mandated a 2020 deadline for bringing smart meters to the entire nation. The European Union has called for all electricity meters to have two-way communications capability by 2022, and the United Kingdom has set a 2020 deadline for nationwide smart meters (see Green Light post and Iberdrola Looks to PRIME PLC Standard).

The U.S., on the other hand, has set no mandates for smart metering, though President Barack Obama has called for 40 million to be installed in the coming years.

While King said he'd like to see a 2019 deadline for getting smart meters to every U.S. utility customer, the state-by-state regulatory framework for U.S. utilities makes such policies difficult to enforce at the federal level.

Still, there are steps Congress could take to further support the domestic smart grid industry – beyond the $3.9 billion in stimulus grants given out this fall (see DOE's $3.4B Smart Grid Grant Program: The Winners and DOE Doles Out $620M for Smart Grid).

For example, Congress could express support for giving utilities the ability to charge customers to pay back the costs of energy conservation investment, on top of the investment in new generation plants that they can now recover, King said.