In this week’s smart grid news, we’ve got Elster emerging as a contender in the cellular smart grid space, and new projects from Itron and Echelon in two of the world’s up-and-coming smart grid markets.

Let’s take Itron’s new project in South Africa first. On Monday, the Liberty Lake, Wash.-based smart meter maker announced a $150 million project to deploy smart meters in Johannesburg for utility Edison Power Group. It’s the biggest smart meter project in South Africa to date, according to Itron, though the company didn’t disclose details.

South Africa is one of a number of developing economies, including India, Brazil, and of course China, that’s rife with potential for grid infrastructure improvements and information-communications technology (ICT) upgrades. In South Africa’s case, the country has been dealing with peak power demands so severe that it has forced big industrial and mining users to curtail operations.

Comverge, the U.S.-based demand response company that was taken private in a $49 million deal early this year, has a $27 million contract with South Africa utility Eskom to build a region-wide platform to help add more industrial, commercial and residential endpoints to the country’s demand response capacity.

At the same time, we’re seeing interesting moves to add microgrid capacity to South Africa’s grid from companies like Echelon and others -- a model that applies itself well to unreliable power grids, where lots of customers already have backup generators to ride through sometimes daily outages.

Speaking of Echelon, the San Jose, Calif.-based smart grid networking technology vendor just expanded its work in Brazil, where it competes with virtually every major meter maker for that country’s 65 million or so power customers. Echelon’s Monday announcement wasn’t so big, involving 1,500 units via partner ELO. But it’s a pretty high-profile deployment, in support of Brazilian utility Cemig’s new “City of the Future” project, a broad smart grid test ground in the country’s Sete Lagoas region that includes 95,000 residential, commercial, and industrial customers overall.

Echelon is far from alone in testing its technology in Brazilian showcase projects, however. Silver Spring Networks, Trilliant, Itron, Elster, Sensus, General Electric and Toshiba’s Landis+Gyr have been partnering with Brazilian companies for years now in anticipation of a government decree that had been expected to mandate smart meters for all. The government drastically reduced that goal in August, however, saying it would only require smart meters for new buildings and those large customers that asked for them -- a much smaller market overall.

That shift to an “opt-in” style smart metering mandate may be a boon to cellular communications for the smart grid in Brazil, by the way. Companies like Silver Spring, Itron, Elster and L+G have used mesh networks for their North American smart meter deployments -- but mesh doesn’t work so well when only a few customers in a neighborhood elect to have meters.

Of course, the aforementioned mesh networking players have all been getting into cellular in a big way, whether it’s been Itron’s acquisition of cellular smart metering startup SmartSynch and work with German telco giant Deutsche Telekom, or Silver Spring’s newest version of cellular-compatible technology, among others.

Elster, the German smart metering giant that was bought by private equity firm Melrose for $2.2 billion this May, joined the cellular club last week, announcing it had added cellular two-way communications to its EnergyAxis mesh networking platform. Utility partner Dominion Virginia Power has started using Elster’s cellular for its plug-in electric vehicle customers, the company announced.

Elster has also teamed up with Cisco and Landis+Gyr to share communications technology, a move that’s being matched by lots of other cross-platform integration efforts in the smart metering space. After all, an AMI network’s value increases as it shares its data and functionality across multiple utility operations, like outage detection, grid diagnostics, asset management and customer relations, to mention a few.