Utilities and governments around the world spent more than $12 billion upgrading, strengthening and “smartening up” their electrical power grids in 2008, an amount projected to grow to more than $33 billion through 2014, according to a new study by NextGen Research.

The study’s author, research analyst Atakan Ozbek, says he found no clear leadership of the smart grid sector between North America and Europe, the two regions showing the highest levels of smart grid-related development. “While the European markets have a higher number of installed smart meters, one of the essential components of future smart grid networks, the U.S. smart grid market has seen a greater level of activity since late 2007.” He adds that by the end of the study’s forecast period (2014), the United States will overtake Europe in its number of smart meters installed.

Ozbek finds it encouraging for the smart grid sector that governments are allocating billions for upgrades to existing electrical networks to improve their reliability, interactive capabilities, and openness to renewable energy sources. However, he says, a lack of industry-wide smart grid standards is hindering the sector’s growth potential. A number of different electrical and electronic/IT systems must cooperate in a smart grid; a lack of standards means integrators must learn which systems will work together out of the box and which require substantial additional integration.

“The early movers, like PG&E and Austin Energy, should take advantage of their early participation in the field to establish open standards,” which would allow smart grid deployments to progress more quickly, with predictable costs.