Goldman Sachs analysts say M&A among Europe’s utilities is likely to pick up this year, and name Britain’s Shanks, Drax, International Power, the country’s water companies (Severn Trent, Northumbrian Water, Pennon and United Utilities), and Edison of Italy as the most likely targets. (Shanks, of course, is already in the Carlyle Group’s crosshairs.)

The Goldman team looked at company ownership; the political and regulatory backdrop; and the firms’ sizes and relative valuations to come up with its top picks.

From the note, dated Jan 7:

“We believe M&A activity will pick up over the course of 2010 as current market valuations provide a once-in-a-cycle opportunity for potential acquirers, current economic weakness is likely to accelerate sector consolidation and private equity firms are likely to deploy capital as credit markets open up …

“However, we expect the bulk of M&A activity to continue to come through disposals, as companies seek to strengthen their balance sheets, mainly to avoid credit rating downgrades as a result of their high gearing levels.”