Ambient Corp. is extending its smart grid partnership with Duke Energy, with plans to supply its multi-modal communications modules to support the millions of smart meters the utility plans to deploy in multiple states over the coming years.

But as with many of the partnerships Duke has announced in support of its smart grid plans, the contract announced Wednesday doesn't necessarily preclude others with similar technology – in this case, Mississippi-based smart meter maker SmartSynch – from playing a role.

Financial terms of the contract were not disclosed Wednesday. But it could extend into the hundreds of millions of dollars for Ambient, depending on the size and speed of Duke's smart meter rollout, according to estimates from John Joyce, Ambient's president and CEO.

One example is Ohio, where Duke intends to install about 700,000 smart meters. Ambient's X-series communications nodes serve multiple meters, so the Newton, Mass.-based company could see about 150,000 of the nodes deployed in Ohio – and that's worth "in excess of" $50 million, Joyce said.

While Joyce wouldn't speculate on how those dollars could add up for Duke's other smart meter deployments, the utility does intend to install 1.5 million meters in Ohio and Indiana over the next five years. If Duke gets the $200 million federal stimulus grant it has asked for, that timeline could be cut in half (see Smart Grid Stimulus Applications at $2.85B and Counting).

Ambient's new agreement with Duke runs through 2015, Joyce said. The company has already seen roughly $15 million in revenues from its four-year relationship with Duke, which includes devices installed to support the utility's 50,000 smart meter deployment in Cincinnati, he said.

San Jose, Calif.-based Echelon Corp. supplies the smart meters for that deployment, and recently announced a similar open-ended deal with Duke for an initial $15.8 million smart meter order that could expand to as much as $150 million (see Echelon Expands Smart Meter Contract With Duke Energy).

The idea is to link Echelon's smart meters, which use powerline carrier technology to transmit data over low-voltage power lines, to Ambient's communications nodes that typically sit at the transformer.

Ambient's nodes then convert that into various modes of IP-based long-range communications, most prominently using Verizon Wireless' cellular networks, Joyce said.

Duke has stood out amongst U.S. utilities for keeping its smart grid communications choices wide open. Besides Ambient and Echelon, Duke has also asked Jackson, Miss.-based SmartSynch to develop communications modules that can be updated to link a variety of communications (see SmartSynch's Smart Grid in a Box).

And, of course, Duke has said it will turn to Cisco Systems and the smart grid networking gear it is busy building, though details on that partnership haven't yet emerged (see Duke Energy Enlists Cisco in its Smart Grid Efforts).

While Joyce said he anticipated Ambient's communications nodes being the backbone of Duke's smart meter deployment, he said SmartSynch or others could serve the roughly 20 percent of situations where Ambient's solution might not be best suited for the task.

Todd Arnold, Duke's senior vice president of smart grid, agreed.

"Basically, both can co-exist," he said. "Both are important... it's another alternative as to how we reach spots and how we connect."

It's a common choice facing utilities, since communications technologies that work well for rural areas don't work well in densely populated urban areas, and visa versa. Echelon's power line signaling technology, for example, might not be the most cost-effective solution for sparsely populated areas where a transformer may serve just one customer.

Duke has also separated itself from the majority of U.S. utilities in choosing powerline carrier communications for its chief mode of getting smart meters to network locally. Most of the utilities in North America are using wireless mesh systems instead (see RF Mesh, ZigBee Top North American Utilities' Smart Meter Wish Lists).

Joyce did say that Duke is looking to Milwaukee, Wis.-based Badger Meter Inc. to supply smart gas and water meters to the utility. Those meters use wireless mesh communications, which Ambient's nodes will take up and translate as well, he said.

Duke has said it intends to install about 450,000 smart gas meters in Ohio, but hasn't publicly announced its intention to work with Badger on that project. Arnold said that Duke has used Badger Meters technology in its Cincinatti smart meter deployment, but wouldn't comment further.

Duke has also declined to confirm or deny reports that it is working with North Carolina-based wireless networking developer Sequentric Energy Systems to design in-home energy management networks for a pilot project it's doing in its headquarters city of Charlotte, N.C. (see Sequentric Working on Duke Pilot Project).

Nor has the utility commented on reports that it is using in-home energy management displays from Toronto-based startup Lixar, which was recently acquired by well-funded smart grid software startup GridPoint (see GridPoint Buys Home Energy Management Startup Lixar).

As for Ambient's other utility prospects, Joyce said that New York utility Consolidated Edison is an investor in the company, and that the two may seek to "deploy some of the newer technology" from Ambient in the "very near future."

But he wouldn't confirm whether or not that meant that Ambient might be involved in the stimulus-seeking smart grid projects the utility has proposed. Those include an unspecified request in support of a $375 million smart meter deployment, as well as a $46 million request to support a smart grid demonstration project involving Boeing Corp., Viridity Energy, the city of New York and Columbia University (see Green Light post).

Interact with smart grid industry visionaries from North American utilities, innovative hardware and software vendors and leading industry consortiums at The Networked Grid on November 4 in San Francisco.