As always, DistribuTECH 2012 produced a lot of news, including alliances, new projects and expanded capabilities. But beneath the showy technology displays and executive confidence, a thread of uncertainty ran through this year's conference in San Antonio, Texas -- as did a sense that the smart grid industry, after its $4 billion stimulus-dollars-funded surge of the last two years, had entered a rough patch.

In other words, it's a “smoke ‘em if you got ‘em year,” Gregg Dixon of EnerNOC said on the trade room floor. Utilities are busy pushing out millions of smart meters backed by DOE cash, but state regulators in Maryland, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Hawaii and elsewhere have put millions more in limbo by demanding that utilities lower their cost in rate increases, as well as prove they can live up to promises of customer engagement, including web portals and other education tools. 

The word of the conference was “interoperability,” although examples of large-scale field deployments to test that claim were rare. The show floor at DistribuTECH was relatively free of in-home displays, but that doesn’t mean Opower, Tendril, EnergyHub, Energate and other home energy companies weren’t there. Instead, the focus was on controls and management, rather than just electricity savings. There were exceptions, such as Consert and up-and-comers such as Allure Energy, which made some headlines at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this month.

For new business, vendors are squarely focused on the municipal and cooperative market. From eMeter, which was recently acquired by Siemens, to On-Ramp Wireless and HP, companies touted the mid-size market in 2012.

For companies on the distribution side, 2012 is a year that will see growth instead of slowing down, according to a new distribution automation report by GTM Research. The market could be particularly busy for munis and co-ops, because they can make the case for efficiency more easily than can the large investor-owned utilities that answer to shareholders and that (mostly) see revenue from selling electricity, not curbing it.

Many conference-goers also noted a distinct drop-off in utility representatives among the sea of vendors. We've already seen smart grid venture capital investment fall off a cliff -- Mercom Capital reports that 2011 investment fell to $377 million, nearly half the $769 million raised in 2010. At the same time, acquisitions boomed to $4.6 billion in 2011, as giants like Siemens, Schneider Electric, General Electric, Alstom and ABB have snapped up startups and established companies that fit their vision.

Perhaps the real buyers on the DistribuTECH floor this year were other vendors, not utilities.