Duke Energy said Tuesday it has enlisted Cisco Systems in a three-year project to build out an "end-to-end, smart grid communications architecture," becoming the second U.S. utility to enlist the networking giant in its smart grid efforts.

Cisco announced its big push into smart grid technologies last month, shortly after it was named as a partner for a one-million smart meter project being undertaken by Florida Power and Light in Miami (see Cisco Wants to Be Everywhere in Smart Grid) and A Million Smart Meters for Miami).

The future for the smart grid industry to some degree is being laid now. Large utilities are signing contracts with technology providers and moving ahead with large pilots or commercial rollouts. Commonwealth Edison, for instance, said today it selected GE and Silver Spring Networks, Cisco's rival, for a 141,000 meter rollout. Tendril, which makes energy management technology for the home, raised $30 million this week, with Tendril CEO Adrian Tuck predicting that consolidation will start to occur over the next 18 months.

Charlotte, N.C.-based Duke, for its part, has taken a go-slow approach to its smart grid efforts, compared to other utilities now deploying millions of smart meters to their customers. Duke has so far installed about 60,000 smart meters in Cincinnati, working with smart meter provider Echelon Corp.

Later this year the utility plans to start a five-year project to bring more than 700,000 smart electric meters and 450,00 smart natural gas meters to its Ohio service territory. Duke also is seeking regulator permission to install about 800,000 smart meters in its Indiana service territory.

Duke is also testing a so-called "microgrid" project in Charlotte, involving about 100 homes connected to a solar photovoltaic power plant and both large and small-scale energy storage. It also intends to install so-called distribution automation hardware and software to improve distribution grid reliability in both Ohio and Indiana.

Cisco and Duke said that the architecture they're deploying would be based on Internet protocol – no surprise, given Cisco's emphasis on IP as a common standard for smart grid technology.

Beyond that, the two companies didn't provide many specifics on their plan, other than to say they would test a variety of communications hardware and software on the grid, as well as devices in customers' homes aimed at reducing their electricity consumption (see The Smart Home, Part I).

"How do you start the right way, is the key part of this work," said Todd Arnold, Duke senior vice president. In the coming weeks and months, Duke and Cisco would be plotting out their strategy for how to interconnect the various pieces of an overall smart grid — smart meters, home energy monitoring and management devices, distribution automation devices and the like — in a way that allows new technology to be integrated into it in a well-planned manner.

As for that Cisco specifically might bring to the grid beyond its expertise in this kind of networking architecture "As they help define what’s required to reach this interoperable network, they’ll also be bringing things to us in terms of what products and services they’re bringing to that space," Arnold said.

While Duke didn't specify which equipment providers it would work with, it has been testing multi-modal communications devices  from smart meter networking company SmartSynch and smart grid communications technology provider Ambient Corp. (see SmartSynch's Smart Grid in a Box).

And of course, Cisco has said it will develop rugged, weatherproof routers and servers to serve in utility applications.