The California Energy Commission is getting updates from the state's major utilities Wednesday and Thursday on just what they're doing to incorporate digital communications, renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies into their grids – in other words, what they're doing to make them smarter.

And it isn't just about smart meters – although the state's three largest investor-owned utilities are among the most aggressive in the nation in deploying millions of two-way communicating meters to their customers (see

Sure, those projects – 5 million meters being deployed by Pacific Gas & Electric Co., 4.8 million by Southern California Edison, and 1.4 million by San Diego Gas & Electric – will be part of a "smart grid" of the future.

But there are a lot of other pieces to the smart grid concept, including setting up "microgrids" capable of powering themselves through general blackouts, monitoring the flow of power on major transmission and neighborhood-scale distribution lines, and other technologies that don't involve smart meters.

Those types of smart grid projects might receive a lot more attention if the Department of Energy sticks to a proposal to limit the size of grants from the $4.5 billion set aside for smart grid projects in the stimulus package passed in February.

The DOE's preliminary guidance released in March would limit "investment grants" from $3.75 billion of that total amount to $20 million per project – a relatively small amount of money that has some utilities and their commissions complaining that it will exclude the larger-scale projects most likely to spur economic growth (see Smart Grid Stimulus: What To Expect and Stimulus Money Going, Going...).

Multi-billion dollar smart meter deployments, like the combined $11 billion California's big three utilities are doing, are certainly outside that scope.

At the same time, the DOE's guidance put more emphasis on distribution automation, large-scale energy storage, curtailing energy use during peak demand times (so-called demand response), and devices called synchronized phasor measurement systems used to monitor transmission systems.

That's according to Jim Parks, energy efficiency and customer research and development manager for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, who laid out what he saw as the federal government's smart grid wish lists in a Wednesday presentation to the commission

Southern California Edison is spending about $1.5 billion on smart grid development projects, Paul De Martini, the vice president in charge of the utility's efforts, said in a Wednesday presentation to the commission. Of that, about $1.25 billion is for its smart meter program.

But the utility is also working on systems to integrate wind and solar power into the grid, including both large-scale and distributed storage for the power those intermittent renewable power sources provide.

San Diego Gas & Electric and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District are also doing microgrid projects. The San Diego project was one California Public Utilities Commissioner Rachelle Chong cited as a stimulus-worthy project in a March memo, so it's likely state regulators will be keeping a close eye on it.

Thomas Bialek, SDG&E's chief engineer for transmission and distribution planning, said the utility's next two years or so would be focused on projects like smart meters, its microgrid project, outage detection and management, and demand response, including enabling homes to send and receive signals on power pricing to help homeowners reduce their use when the grid is strained.

Looking past 2011, the utility would hope to see "major regulatory issues," such as jurisdiction over transmission lines and customer energy usage data ownership issues, resolved, according to Bialek's presentation.

The issue of federal versus state jurisdiction over transmission siting will be an important one if large-scale deployments of wind power in the Midwest and solar power in the Southwest, where the resources are greatest, is to be linked to population centers on the country's coasts.

That's an issue in energy legislation pending in Congress, where a Senate version of the bill contains stronger provisions for federal powers than an alternative House bill (see House Energy Bill: Cap and Trade Included and Draft Legislation a Boon for Solar, Smart Grid).

And energy data ownership has come to the forefront with Google's efforts to develop its PowerMeter software to help homeowners view how much energy they're using. Google has called for that data to be freely available for homeowners to distribute to non-utility parties (see Google Looks Beyond Smart Meters for Home Energy Data and Google Gets Into Home Energy Management).