Swiss electrical engineering company ABB announced today it has taken a $10 million stake in the electric car charging infrastructure company ECOtality, making it the latest of several major global  companies to enter the space.

The companies also inked a partnership establishing ABB as the “preferred supplier” for power electronics parts for ECOtality, so it’s clear ABB intends to earn its investment back in more ways than one. ECOtality makes the Blink networked electric car chargers (pictured, left).

As electric cars have rolled out and increasing numbers of major automakers have planned electric vehicle releases, we’ve seen a growing pool of startups that have attracted millions in investment from big companies who want to get in on the electric vehicle action as vendors. Panasonic, which supplies battery cells to electric car startup Tesla, announced in November it would plow $30 million into the company. And ECOtality’s competitor Coulomb Technologies got a nice bump via a partnership with Siemens.

Many global corporations like GE, Siemens and ABB have also made other forays into cleantech. Siemens makes wind turbines. ABB purchased smart grid software company Ventyx for $1 billion last year and has also partnered with smart grid communications guru Trilliant.

Investments like ABB’s in ECOtality are a “strategic alignment that enables them to get into a new market that is a natural extension of their business,” says John Gartner, analyst for Pike Research.

But some are getting into the market in bigger ways than others. GE is running numerous cleantech plays, from wind turbines to cleaner-burning engines to smart grid and smart home applications. It also launched the WattStation (pictured), its own electric car charger, and has partnered with charging infrastructure startup Better Place — a well-financed competitor to ECOtality and Coulomb.

GE and global electrical systems company Eaton have both launched their own electric vehicle chargers and grid management tools, so Gartner sees them as “formidable competitors” to ABB and Siemens, who are by comparison taking smaller steps toward electric vehicle charging, though there are upsides to their approach.
“ABB and Siemens get a ‘toe in the water’ in EVSE (electric vehicle supply equipment) and get an understanding of the issue without having to do product development,” Gartner said. However, “GE and Eaton could get an upper hand in manufacturing at scale and developing customer relationships earlier along in the process and integrate it into their overall business. Both companies clearly see EV charging as an important part of their power distribution business.”

ECOtality is deploying almost 15,000 chargers in 16 cities in a $230 million project, half of which will be fronted by the DOE. Its competitor, Coulomb Technologies is rolling out 5,000 chargers across the nation in regions where electric vehicles will be delivered by its partners, Chevrolet, Ford and smart USA and is also the recipient of DOE funding.

There’s been some debate over whether or not lack of publicly available charging infrastructure will slow sales of electric vehicles. Some argue that consumers won’t be comfortable buying electric cars until their fears of running out of battery power mid-trip are allayed.

Others argue that the vast majority of charging will be done at home, so public charging infrastructure won’t be a big issue. With the major global players all vying to get in on EV charging action, it looks like major business executives beg to disagree.