Southern California Edison (SCE) kicked off its Edison SmartConnect program yesterday by installing the first of 5 million smart meters to help customers save energy and money. These new digital, secure, two-way communicating meters will measure electricity usage up-to-the minute and, when fully implemented, will enable customers to track how much they use, and how much it costs them.

Edison SmartConnect is a key step in transforming the electric system to a smart grid, according to SCE. Smart meter installations began in Downey, California, and will continue through 2012 for all SCE residential and small-business customers in the utility’s 50,000-square-mile service territory.

The smart meters, supplied by Itron Inc., include advanced features that enable the meters to communicate with the next generation of “smart” thermostats, appliances and other devices. The new meters allow remote activation of electric service at the customer’s convenience. New pricing plans, programs and services will empower customers to make informed decisions about their energy use. Many of these advanced features and functionality will go into effect in the second half of 2010.

SCE contracted with Corix Utilities, Inc. to perform most of the installations. Edison SmartConnect is a $1.6 billion program authorized by the California Public Utilities Commission. SCE anticipates customers’ use of the new meters will reduce demand on the electricity grid by about 1,000 megawatts, the amount of energy produced at an average power plant. Sustained energy conservation resulting from customer response to their energy use information is also expected to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and smog-forming pollutants by a minimum of 365,000 metric tons per year — the equivalent of removing 79,000 cars from the road.