Duke Energy, the third-largest electric utility in the U.S., will work with network communications giant Cisco Systems Inc. in an effort to speed development of an electric smart grid for the power company and its 11 million customers.

The three-year partnership, announced today, marks the latest step in Duke's efforts to replace its electrical delivery infrastructure, which uses analog technology, with a state-of-the-art smart grid system. The system would use two-way digital communication in order to reduce energy consumption; boost energy efficiency as well as system reliability; assist with diagnostic functions, such as detecting outages; and integrate renewable energy sources into the electric grid.

The partnership also represents Cisco's latest effort in its strategy to position itself as a provider of a range of smart grid tools that cover residential to industrial use. Cisco unveiled its line of smart grid technology in May. In April, Cisco, GE, Florida Power & Light and Silver Spring Networks announced their partnership with the city of Miami in a $200 million regional smart grid project.

At Duke Energy, "our goal is to rapidly transform the way electricity is delivered to, and used by, the 11 million people we serve in five states," Todd Arnold, the utility's senior vice president for smart grid and customer systems, says of his firm's partnership with Cisco.

Duke and Cisco intend to develop an "end-to-end, smart grid communications architecture" that will be based on Internet-protocol standards and will easily adapt to new communications technology.

The two firms also will work together to develop and install home energy management devices to help customers control and curb their electricity consumption, and to provide the critical digital connection between customers and the utility.

Duke says it plans to begin a five-year mass deployment of more than 700,000 electric smart meters and 450,000 natural gas smart meters in Ohio later this year.

In Indiana, Duke seeks approval from the state Utility Regulatory Commission to install extensive smart grid technology, including approximately 800,000 smart meters. The energy company announced yesterday that it had reached a settlement agreement with the Indiana Office of Utility Consumer Counselor and consumer and business groups about the company's smart grid plans in the state.

Duke also is working to bring smart grid technology to its customers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Kentucky. The firm has already started deploying 70,000 smart electric meters and 40,000 digital gas meters in North and South Carolina and the Greater Cincinnati area, the company says in its 2008-2009 sustainability report.

In another smart grid development today, Commonwealth Edison Company, a unit of Chicago-based Exelon Corporation, said it has recommended GE Energy and Silver Spring Networks as its information and technology partners in a proposed Advanced Metering Infrastructure pilot project.

If the partners and the proposal are approved by the Illinois Commerce Commission, the utility and the two firms will embark on a one-year test project involving 141,000 smart meters, 11 communities and the city of Chicago.

Recent months have seen an acceleration in the partnerships between utilities and technology companies that are looking to lay the foundation for a smart grid system in their service areas. Those moves have come as the Obama administration has strengthened its support for the establishment of a nationwide smart electric power grid through increased development grants and other measures.

In addition to the Energy Smart Miami Project launched in April, eight utilities teamed up with Google last month for a series of smart meter trials: San Diego Gas & Electric, TXU Energy in Texas, JEA in Florida, Reliance Energy in India, the Wisconsin Public Service Corporation, White River Valley Electric Cooperative in Missouri, Toronto Hydro–Electric System Limited in Canada and Glasgow EPB in Kentucky.

Electrical Tower -- Image CC licensed by ttarasiuk.