By Jeff St. John, GigaOM Looks like ABB is picking its preferred winner for a future network of U.S. plug-in car charging systems. The Swiss power grid giant announced Monday a $10 million investment into ECOtality, and also said ABB will be the preferred supplier of the car charging startup’s equipment in North America. The deal is the most recent in a series of partnerships on the plug-in vehicle charging front between large power companies and smaller players. General Electric, for example, has tapped smart charging software startup Juice Technologies for its WattStation charging system, and has more recently formed a multi-faceted relationship with battery-swapping startup Better Place. German engineering giant Siemens has a co-marketing deal with Coulomb Technologies to sell Siemens’ smart grid IT along with Coulomb’s charging station technology. ECOtality will use the $10 million to support its work supplying chargers for The EV Project, an effort supported by the Department of Energy, Nissan and General Motors to install charging networks in six U.S. states. While the San Francisco-based company has installed about 6,000 chargers for forklifts, airport trucks and other private vehicles, ECOtality’s Blink charging stations are meant for consumer plug-in vehicles, with lots of communications options and units designed for both home and commercial use. ABB also has a deal with General Motors to study using partly-depleted Chevy Volt lithium-ion batteries for grid energy storage applications. ABB’s investment and strategic partnership delivers ECOtality a deep-pocketed partner with an enormous footprint in the electricity sector — important for vehicle charging networks that will need close cooperation and communication with utilities. ECOtality also plans to install its Blink fast-chargers at a dozen Best Buy stores on the West Coast this spring, which will open up the challenges of high-voltage, direct current, fast charging for plug-in vehicles — an area where ABB’s power grid expertise will no doubt be helpful. ABB, in turn, will gain access to ECOtality’s Web portal and charging management network and its “Micro-Climate” system to design charging networks based on regional factors like traffic patterns, population density and zoning rules.
Maybe ECOtality and ABB will move toward an even closer partnership in the future? ABB has been one of the most acquisitive companies in the smart grid space over the past year, spending more than $1 billion for smart grid software vendor Ventyx in May and picking up electric motor maker Baldor and software maker Insert Key Solutions since then. ABB will gain two seats on ECOtality’s board of directors with Monday’s deal, making a future acquisition a definite possibility.Whether ABB will form other charging partnerships in markets outside North America wasn’t mentioned in Monday’s press release, but given the potential technical differences that may emerge in those markets, other geographies could likely be on the table (for more on that subject, see my GigaOM Pro article from last week, subscription required). For more on vehicles and IT check out GigaOM Pro (subscription required):
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