Home energy management systems are coming, and the best part is, you may not even have to pay for them.

BC Hydro, a large utility in Canada, will roll out two million smart meters to its customers over the next two years, as well as offering rebates for home energy management systems in stores.

Despite the publicity surrounding home automation, few systems have been installed because of the high price tag. Many systems can cost a few hundred dollars, or too much for consumers who might only save $40 a year. But these systems -- if deployed in large numbers -- can help utilities avoid firing up peaker plants or building new power plants. A few hundred dollars per house might look like a good idea. 

Technically, nothing is free. Smart thermostats cost money and so do things like home automation systems. But with the right programs, these technologies can be free from the perspective of consumers. If a utility pays for it, the price tag -- as far as a household is concerned -- is zero for a new thermostat. In fact, it’s better than free. Because it will reduce power consumption, it is a free gadget that saves them money.

Under a solar lease, consumers have to pay two bills -- one to a utility and one to a solar provider -- and generally the sum of the two is less than the cost of the old electricity bill.

In the commercial building space, Transcend Equity says it will pay your utility bill. In exchange, building owners have to pay Transcend to conduct a retrofit that will lower power consumption by 25 percent to 40 percent. In old buildings, the math works and the owner gets an ostensibly free construction project.

Of course, the key to all of these ideas are the words “if” and “regulatory.” No two utilities are alike, and neither are their Public Utility Commissions, and so the pricing schemes to give efficient technologies a quick payback will never be the same everywhere. These are big math problems with policy considerations thrown in. Will they work?

Read more on this topic in a joint effort by General Electric Ecomagination and Greentech Media, and join in on the conversation here.