The programmable thermostat is getting wired.

Radio Thermostat will soon release a WiFi-enabled thermostat to control energy consumption that can be programmed remotely through a computer. Utilities, conceivably, could also control the thermostat under advanced metering/demand response programs.

Get used to it. Utilities across the country are laying down plans to try to reduce household and commercial energy consumption with controllable thermostats. Heating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems consume around 16 percent of the electricity in the U.S. (Buildings consume 40 percent of the country's electricity and 40 percent of that total goes to HVAC systems.)

In many of the proposed programs, utilities will give consumers discounts on their monthly power bills in exchange for letting the utilities move the thermostat up and down to control power consumption. A city is facing a brown out? The utility throttles the air conditioner back to save power. Utilities say they will not move the temperature dial outside of a general comfort zone. Consumers also can override utility controls and program these devices themselves, although at that point they may not qualify for certain discounts. (Still, if consumers can save power by programming it on their own, they will still save money.)

GainSpan also announced it has begun to collaborate with GridNet, which develops software for connecting utilities, regional power stations and homes. The company is a proponent for using WiMax, a long-range wireless broadband protocol originally developed for data traffic. Although WiMax is beginning to be deployed to carry data traffic, it hasn't conquered the world. Thus, expect a big push on WiMax in energy control as a way to amortize the cost of those WiMax towers (see The Next Smart Grid Market: Germany).

The companies made the announcement at Greentech Innovations End-to-End Electricity, a conference sponsored by Greentech Media.

The chip inside of Radio's thermostat comes from GainSpan, which has devised a low-powered WiFi chip. GainSpan, which spun out of Intel, is already working with Hitachi and others to control power in industrial systems. (It also devised a heart monitor based on its chip.)  Radio added that its thermostat is compatible with existing HVAC systems and, because it's wireless, you don't have to worry about running network cables through the wall.

Several companies are competing over the control of the thermostat. Tendril has devised a Zigbee-based system and software that warns consumers when power costs are running high (see An Old Favorite – WiFi – Preps to Disrupt Smart Meter Market). It is already working with several utilities. Sequentric Energy Systems, meanwhile, has a wireless systems based on a different protocol. Several of these technologies will compete for prominence over the next several years. Test results from early deployments, however, could help narrow down the field.