Consumers Energy is developing a high-tech meter system as part of its five- year plan to invest $6 billion in energy reliability and customer service in Michigan.

The new "smart" electric meters will provide Consumers Energy's 1.8 million customers with detailed information about their power usage, allowing them to make decisions about energy efficiency, conserving electricity during periods of high demand, and lowering their energy costs.

Consumers Energy also plans to add communication modules to the existing meters for its 1.7 million natural gas customers. That will allow the utility to provide more detailed information about energy usage to those customers, so they can make decisions about lowering their natural gas costs through conservation and energy efficiency steps.

The new system, known as Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI), also will notify the utility immediately if there is an interruption of a customer's electric service.

The AMI schedule calls for a pilot project in 2008 to install and test a limited number of smart electric meters and gas meter communications modules. After the pilot project, AMI will move toward full deployment over the next five years.

The AMI project is a key part of Consumers Energy's Balanced Energy Initiative, a comprehensive plan to meet the electric needs of its customers over the next 20 years.

The Balanced Energy Initiative calls for meeting the growing customer demand for electricity with energy efficiency, demand management, expanding the use of renewable energy from 5 percent to 10 percent, and developing new power plants, along with utilizing existing generating sources.

The utility's plan is designed to help maintain affordable and reliable supplies of electricity for Michigan's families and businesses.

"Full implementation of the AMI system will significantly enhance our ability to serve customers. AMI also will give customers the information they need to evaluate ways that they can lower their bills by conserving energy and using energy more efficiently," said John Russell, Consumers Energy's president and chief operating officer.

"AMI is one of the major investments that we plan to make in Michigan's infrastructure over the next five years. Those investments will create thousands of new jobs and expand the tax base of the state and local communities and help us continue to provide safe and reliable electric and natural gas service to our customers while keeping rates competitive and affordable," Russell said.

Consumers Energy is working with SAP, a leading provider of business software, to design some of the software changes needed for the AMI program. Consumers Energy was the first utility to join SAP's "Lighthouse Council," a group of utilities working with SAP to implement AMI programs. Consumers Energy already is working with SAP on a major project to replace the utility's legacy computer systems with integrated business software.