GainSpan says its low-powered WiFi chipsets can compete with ZigBee for connecting home energy management networks. Now it has another set of partners to test that proposition.

The new partners are RF module maker RF Digital and home energy management application startup Our Home Spaces. The three announced Thursday that they're teaming up under the umbrella of the U-SNAP Alliance to make a kit for homeowners to measure and control energy consumption.

The U-SNAP Alliance wants to bring modular communications to smart thermostats, smart appliances and other energy-aware in-home devices. It's recently landed a host of partners including General Electric, Google, Comverge, Trilliant and several utilities (see U-SNAP Gets Google, GE, Utilities to Support Modular Smart Grid Comms).

Most of the North American utilities planning to link home energy networks to newly deployed smart meters are looking at ZigBee to provide that link (see RF Mesh, ZigBee Top North American Utilities' Smart Meter Wish Lists).

But WiFi backers contend that the ubiquitous wireless standard is a better choice, given that it's already being used to link up computers to the internet via home hubs.

So far, major utility announcements haven't named WiFi as a way to link smart meters to in-home networks. But then, none of the ZigBee-linked projects have progressed beyond pilot scale, so there's still time for the likes of WiFi backers to make the push (see Utilities Mull Price Points, Policies for Home Energy Management).

GainSpan is already putting its chips into U-SNAP modules to plug into smart thermostats coming out from Radio Thermostat Co. of America, soon to go on sale at Home Depot (see Get Ready for the WiFi Thermostat).

But Thursday's announcement envisions a host of new devices that could be managed from Our Home Spaces' platform, which includes Web displays and prototype mobile device controls, said Janet Peterson, co-founder of the Novato, Calif.-based startup.

A homeowner might not need a smart meter at all, if he or she can go out and buy devices like "smart plugs" that can monitor and power down appliances that plug into the wall, Peterson noted.

Our Home Spaces is testing such a prototype plug device with a power monitoring chip from Teridian Semiconductor Corp. The Irvine, Calif.-based company already makes chips to measure voltage, current, power factor and similar power features that are contained in smart meters from GE, Landis+Gyr and Elster,

Now it's looking to expand into power monitoring for data centers and other enterprise environments – and yes, also home energy monitoring. Teridian is working with unnamed partners to install its chips into smart plugs, smart appliances and devices that might attach to home circuit panels, said Jay Cormier, vice president of Teridian's networking and secure access business unit.

Those products are still in the prototype stage, however – and they're not wedded to WiFi or any other single communications option, he said. Teridian also is working on devices that use ZigBee, HomePlug and other communications, he said.

"For the home, WiFi would be a natural fit, because that's what a lot of home networks are running anyways," he said. "The question is, when does that start taking off?"

That's a question many home energy management makers must be asking themselves. Utilities will likely need to provide incentives to homeowners to get them to adopt energy management systems en masse, since studies indicate most people don't want to spend more than $50 or on them (see $48: A Threshold Price for In-Home Energy Management?).

One potential link-up for a WiFi-enabled energy management networks could be the home hubs made by telecommunications companies, though the big telecom players have been loath to provide specifics on such plans (see The Telco Home Energy Invasion).

Watch out for consolidation in the space. Industry observers have been saying for months that the overcrowded home energy network space – the battleground of startups like Tendril, Control4, OpenPeak, EnergyHub, Comverge, AlertMe, and dozens more, as well as giants like Google, Microsoft and Cisco – is due for a winnowing (see Silver Spring Swallows Greenbox).

Interact with smart grid industry visionaries from North American utilities, innovative hardware and software vendors and leading industry consortiums at The Networked Grid on November 4 in San Francisco.