We’ve got some news out of Europe on the smart grid front so far this month, starting with the long-awaited launch of France’s smart meter deployment plans.

Late last week, French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault announced that ERDF, the distribution arm of national utility EDF, was ready to move forward with the first, 3-million-meter phase of its nationwide smart meter rollout. That first-stage deployment is set to start next year and be complete by 2014, and ERDF expects to announce tenders for the 3 million meters this summer.

By 2020, France wants to deploy 35 million smart meters at a cost of about €5 billion ($6.5 billion) to meet European Union mandates. So far, it’s deployed about 300,000 smart meters in a pilot project in the cities of Lyon and Tours, but the broader rollout, which will be among the world’s largest single smart meter deployments in coming years, will be the main prize.

Major metering vendors involved in France’s rollout include Toshiba subsidiary Landis+Gyr, U.S. meter maker Itron and Slovenian metering vendor Iskraëmeco, which have participated in the early pilot projects. German metering vendor Elster is also working with ERDF.

ERDF’s smart meter communications technology of choice, known as “Linky,” uses a powerline carrier (PLC) meter communications technology called G3-PLC. ERDF, U.S.-based Maxim Integrated Products and France's Sagem Communications started the G3-PLC process in 2009, and have since added such partners as STMicroelectronics, Cisco, Nexans, and Trialog.

In other words, it’s a homegrown technology, one featuring international partners but also built around a national standard that could favor domestic companies and integrators, much in the way that China, Japan and other European nations are setting up their smart metering plans.

At the same time, ERDF and partners are hoping the Linky/G3-PLC technology will eventually find export markets beyond France’s borders. They’re far from unique in this hope, of course: many other national smart meter technology development efforts are aiming at similar goals.

Take Spain, where big national utility Iberdrola is deploying millions of smart meters, and the technology of choice is known as PRIME. Members of the PRIME Alliance include metering vendors Itron, Landis+Gyr and ZIV, chipmakers like STMicro and Texas Instruments, and key PLC tech vendor CURRENT, the U.S. company bought by Ormazabal, the Spanish medium-voltage power equipment maker, earlier this year.

Iberdrola announced a 1-million-meter, €300 million ($395 million) deployment last year with metering vendors including ZIV, Landis+Gyr, Sagemcom, Orbis, Elster and General Electric. At the same time, Itron, which was selected for a 100,000-meter pilot in 2010, is also involved in the broader Iberdrola rollout.

Itron announced this week that it’s completed the installation of its meter data collection system for Iberdrola, which is now reading more than 1 million meters, and is expected to reach some 2 million meters over the coming year. Iberdrola’s long-range goals include spending €2 billion ($2.64 billion) by 2018 on grid improvements and upgrading more than 10 million meters.

Like the Linky group, PRIME members are also hoping the technology will spread beyond Spain. CURRENT told us earlier this year that the PRIME technology has been used in other European countries, including a 300,000-meter deployment in Poland.

With North American AMI deployments in a post-stimulus lull, Europe is expected to be a big growth market for smart meter vendors in the next few years, with EU mandates and grid pressures pushing the continent toward a projected 100 million smart meters by 2016. That does provide a lot of impetus for European contenders to build up domestic strength in smart metering based on national deployments, then seek to export those successes elsewhere.

Unlike the United States, where almost all utilities have chosen wireless technologies to link individual smart meters back up to utility networks, Europe is a lot more amenable to PLC technologies that use powerlines themselves to carry data.

There are a number of reasons for this, including the fact that European distribution grids connect a lot more homes per transformer -- as many as 100 or more – than do U.S. grids, which tend to use smaller transformers to connect a handful of customers each. That’s important, because transformers tend to be bottlenecks for transmitting data over powerlines.

The French and Spanish PLC technologies in question aren’t going to find openings in all of Europe’s markets. Italian utility Enel already has about 30 million smart meters deployed using technology from San Jose, Calif.-based Echelon, and Echelon’s PLC-based metering technology is also in widespread use across other parts of Europe. The U.K.’s complicated plan to deploy 50 million smart meters to all customers by 2021 is focusing on wireless connectivity, on the other hand.

Other European nations may be more receptive to new technologies, however. Germany is plotting its own path to enabling smart meters and home-to-utility networks, which include the potential for PLC technologies, and the nations of Central and Eastern Europe all have their own plans that could look to technologies from outside their borders.

Tags: current group, echelon, edf, elster, enel, erdf, france, germany, investors, itron, landis+gyr, linky, ormazabal, policy, prime