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.