Curbing peak power demand just doesn’t have the same urgency in energy-conscious Europe as it does in the U.S. -- but that doesn’t mean that efficiency and smart meters rollouts aren’t hot topics.

Europeans have far lower usage than Americans, and historically higher energy prices means that there are much higher efficiency standards built into products. The United Kingdom is similar to mainland Europe, but it also holds promise as one of the most exciting markets to watch in smart grid. Earlier this year, Michael Kanellos reported from DistribuTECH that smart grid execs said the U.K. market might be one of the next frontiers for the industry.

Companies have started to make inroads this year trying to get a toehold in the market as meters are put in place, whether it’s forging alliances like Sensus and Silver Spring Networks, or going in alone, like Opower.

In the recently released Smart Grid in Europe, 2012-2016, GTM Research reported that only around 110,000 smart meters have been installed to date, but that the U.K. government has called for all households to have dual (electricity and gas) smart meters by 2020 -- a figure that will mean about 47 million devices will be put in place in the coming decade. 

To connect all of those meters, “The dominant communication technology that connects the concentrator to the utility in Europe is GSM/GPRS; its dominance is due in large part to the low cost and ease of use,” analyst Geert-Jan van der Zanden writes in the report. Currently, Centrica/British Gas is using GSM/GPRS for the backhaul network for the one million Landis+Gyr meters that are currently being installed.

Although British Gas has an agreement with Vodafone, other utilities such as Scottish Power Energy Networks are using broadband powerline, and First Utility is taking more of a kitchen-sink approach, using PLC, SMS, GSM, GPRS and low-power radio.

Like U.S. utilities, there won’t be a single solution. For example, British Gas is partnered with Vodafone, but it is also working with Trilliant and other partners. Sensus and Arqiva announced last week that metering companies EDMI, EM-Lite, Itron, OnStream and Secure Meters will integrate Sensus’ long-range point-to-point radio communications system into their meters. Silver Spring Networks announced a partnership earlier this month with Cable & Wireless Worldwide to offer a smart grid communications platform for the U.K. market.

Even though it’s still early days for smart meter rollouts, the focus on the customer is front and center. British Gas offers AlertMe hardware and software options to its customers to track their energy usage. First Utility is offering visibility to consumers with Opower’s offerings. EnerNOC also leaped across the pond at the beginning of the year to participate in the Low Carbon London project with its energy efficiency software, DemandSmart.

The uptake of consumer behavior programs is not surprising, as the U.K. government is undergoing trials for its Green Deal, which looks to help homeowners with energy efficiency improvement with no upfront cost starting in October of 2012. The plan is that people can spend up to £10,000 ($16,500) for efficiency upgrades that can be paid back using savings from future utility bills. Like PACE programs in the U.S., the savings would be tied to the building.

The first step in having homeowners embrace efficiency upgrades is to understand how they use energy in the first place, which is why the U.K. government is embracing home energy management reports, such as Opower. The visibility is badly needed in a country where customers make estimated payments monthly and only see an accurate bill once per year.

Besides government support, the deregulated market means that electricity providers are looking for ways to win and keep customers. “We’re seeing an evolution from being power providers to becoming energy management service providers,” Ogi Kavazovic, VP of Marketing and Strategy for Opower, told Greentech Media just after it announced the deal with First Utility. As soon as smart meters are in place, retail electric providers will be able to layer on services -- from solar panels to efficiency programs.

In fact, solar has skyrocketed in the U.K., even though offshore wind receives the bulk of the government support. But the feed-in tariff has boosted the residential PV market, with a total of 17,500 solar jobs expected to be created in the U.K. by the end of 2011, according to GTM Research.

If the Green Deal initiative proceeds as expected, the market for solar and efficiency could balloon just as meter rollouts hit their stride. For smart grid vendors, this looks to be just the beginning.