Given how controversial smart meter rollouts have become of late, what are the optimum sites for smart grid initiatives?

Ideally, you'd look for something that's self-contained and with a population that's localized and small enough to keep the costs of comprehensive updates relatively low. If that sounds like a university, you're on the same page as UCLA, whose Smart Grid Energy Research Center (SMERC) just got another boost in its goal to make the university's sprawling campus a model smart grid paradise.

"UCLA is like a little city -- Pasadena, Burbank and Glendale are not much bigger," Rajit Gadh, the director of SMERC and an engineering professor who specializes in wireless smart-grid technology, said in a release. "With a city like UCLA, we can test our concepts very quickly, as well as conduct very interesting tests."

SMERC is already funded by the Energy Department and the L.A. Department of Water and Power. This week, it announced that it had finalized a 10-year partnership with the Korea Institute of Energy Research, a government-supported think tank in South Korea, to swap ideas and research to build a baseline for an international smart grid.

As part of the plan, Gadh's group is retrofitting buildings on the UCLA campus -- starting with the engineering department, naturally -- with metering and sensor systems. The project is aimed at moving past residential smart meters toward testing sensor networks for coordinating the usage of all electric devices. By testing at the full-building scale, Gadh and SMERC hope to iron out the bugs in networked smart grid systems.

The cornerstone is Gadh's WINSmartGrid network platform. It's being developed as an all-inclusive platform to wirelessly monitor and control appliances, environmental and HVAC systems and EVs. The whole thing is run through a web service that cross-indexes usage data with feeds from utilities on the price of power throughout the day. In theory, it's a way to automatically balance a building's electricity needs with a utility's flexible pricing scheme.

Building the network is a challenge, but is something that's already relatively developed. Gadh's next step is to figure out how best to incorporate returning energy to the grid, via solar, wind or vehicle-to-grid, into the automated platform.

"We're also working on being able to send a signal for electricity to flow back into the grid, be it energy that has been collected by solar panels or electricity that has been stored in the batteries of electric vehicles," Gadh said. "Utilities want to be able to do that, and some are willing to pay for it. So now the priority is to demonstrate that. Once we demonstrate it, people will create markets for it.”

KIER brings experience in developing smart grid communities. The agency's global research center is based on Jeju Island in South Korea, which is home to a massive test-bed community developed by the Korean government.

"Korea is also very advanced and sophisticated when it comes to wireless communications. They already have a lot of advanced wireless communications and semiconductor systems," Gadh said. "In addition, I'm impressed with the amount of resources the Korean government has put into the smart-grid demonstration project already and how much they believe in it.”

So what's the takeaway? First, UCLA's tech looks promising, although we're still a ways off yet from having fully networked smart homes. What's interesting in Gadh's work is the fact that he's developing a web-based platform, which should make for an easy rollout. What's more immediately intriguing, especially with smart meter projects coming under fire from radiation worriers and other NIMBY folk, is the use of UCLA's campus as a test-bed community. As utilities and tech companies search for new pilot locations, universities with sprawling campuses like UCLA's might prove to be a viable option.