The spinning electric meter seen on the outside of homes could soon go the way of incandescent light bulbs and desktop computers.

Using the latest technology, Baton Rouge start-up Utiliworks Consulting helps link high-tech electric meters — known as “smart meters” — to electricity providers.

“Really, the heart and soul of what we do is in this board here,” said Todd Barlow, vice president for operations at Utiliworks, opening up what appears to be a typical round plastic General Electric power meter, and pointing to a network of tiny circuitry. “That’s the intelligence that makes it different from just an ordinary meter that’s been around for 50 years.”

This one is designed to feed data back to the utility via power lines. Others are equipped with wireless transmission devices, somewhat like a cell phone.

The whole system, with software and other equipment, creates what’s known as a “smart grid.” It looks for inefficiencies in the power distribution network and analyzes when and where power needs are greatest, said Dale Pennington, managing director and executive consultant at Utiliworks.

“You can maximize your distribution capability,” Pennington added. “So you’re really routing energy where it’s most effective.”

Utiliworks has been working with the city of Ruston in north Louisiana on a project to design and implement a smart grid system, which would in part replace the conventional electric meters on all of Ruston’s 12,000 homes and businesses with the new high-tech versions.

Utiliworks recently completed the pilot portion of the design and installation project and is now preparing to implement the whole program, Pennington said.

Until recently, Utiliworks has been a relatively small operation of about 15 workers renting space in the Louisiana Business and Technology Center on LSU’s South Campus. Large jobs like the one in Ruston and another in Danvers, Mass., have precipitated a move from the LSU business incubator to larger space on Energy Drive. The company was founded in 2005 by Pennington and Barlow.

New staff positions can also be expected.

“We’re finding needs out there across the country, and we’re hiring people,” said Barlow.

“We’re trying to get people to Baton Rouge,” he added, noting the company recently hired two new employees from Dallas and Washington D.C.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we add another five or six people before the end of the year,” Barlow said.

Ruston received a $4.3 million U.S. Department of Energy grant made available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to help fund its $8.6 million project. The grant requires a 50 percent match by the city, said Darrell Caraway, public utility manager in Ruston. The Ruston project was one of only 100 in the country awarded the grant out of a pool of 400.

Improving and updating power grids is expected to be a growth area, say utility analysts and those in the industry.

“Energy prices are just going up,” Pennington said. “The more expensive it gets, the more concerned people are and we’re going to have to create solutions to deal with it.

“If you have a $500-a-month power bill, you’re going to come up with some ways to manage it,” he added, noting an emerging generation of electric vehicles will also place unforeseen demands on power grids.

By November 2010, some 57.9 million smart meters were planned for installation in the United States by more than 90 utilities, according to Pike Research, a market research and analysis firm for clean technology markets.

“We estimate that by the end of this year some form of ‘smart meter’ will be installed in 15 percent to 20 percent of U.S. households, and will exceed 50 percent by 2016,” said Bob Gohn, smart grid research director at Pike research.

In short, the new smart grid and metering technology gives electricity providers and consumers infinitely more information about demand, service interruptions and waste in the system than ever before, Pennington said. The upgraded systems will also be able to better interface with alternative power generation systems like home-installed solar panels or wind turbines.

“So that’s a very large component of it, is this operational efficiency,” Pennington said.

In Louisiana, power and water are, for the most part, plentiful and cheap, said Pennington. But in other parts of the county where adding electricity or water capacity is not always an option, utilities are looking for ways to cut waste and encourage residential customers to use energy hogs like clothes dryers and dishwashers at night when electricity demand is low. To do this, many providers are making power cheaper during evening hours compared to daytime rates.

“So depending on where they live, people can start running dishwashers at 9 o’clock when it’s half the price in power compared to 2 in the afternoon,” Pennington explained. And many smart meters are equipped to give customers information like when electric costs drop.

“Typically, a lot of people when they just understand their energy usage, they become more involved in it, and that reduces the bills 3 to 4 percent,” Pennington said.

And the same goes for utility companies.

“And now, because you have this data to identify where problem areas may be, you can actually reduce losses within your system and you can get another 3 to 4 percent. So if you’re billing $20 or $30 million a year, it’s quite a quick payback on this system.”