Indian Wells, Calif.--Utilities, startups, and building management firms all readily admit that it's tough to get customers to show sustained interest in their home energy management consoles or in the concept of saving money through time-of-use pricing.

After all, we are talking pennies. In Canada, Toronto Hydro kicked off its time-of-use plan with a large consumer campaign to make its customers aware of the money that could be saved by drying clothes at night and performing other tasks off-peak. Few have changed their behavior. In part, that's because power ranges in price from 9.9 cents per kilowatt hour at the peak to 4.4 cents.

Executives at Opower and EnergyHub told me during breaks at The Networked Grid, taking place this week, that they have seen progress around this problem through what you could call actionable lump sums. (Disclosure: I actually just made that term up. No human has ever uttered that phrase, but it sounds like it could be something from a PowerPoint slide deck, doesn't it?)

In a nutshell, the companies try to pinpoint particular appliances in the home that appear to be consuming large amounts of electricity. Then, instead of telling consumers that their air conditioner costs them an extra $1.27 a day, they will give the total for the month ($38.10) or longer periods, as well as providing tips on how to curb their consumption ("Turn the thermostat up to 74 degrees"), according to EnergyHub CEO Seth Frader-Thompson. Ideally, this makes the gains look like real money.

It will still be tough. Sumeet Jain at CMEA said that his firm has yet to make a smart grid investment. "There are two constituencies we don't like," he said. "The economics aren't there yet (in the home) for anyone to do anything interesting."

Ultimately, home energy management systems will largely be automated. Consumers will plug in their settings and let the management systems control them in the background. But these sorts of techniques to get consumers to pay attention could play a big role in optimizing the management systems. Perhaps more importantly, they will also give consumers a way to justify shelling out a few hundred dollars to buy a system.

Kris Bowring, senior director of home energy management at Best Buy, added that the consumer experience must be seamless. He recently toured one of the company's stores in Texas with a consumer. He gave the shopper a $50 gift card to test out a home energy management system controlled by an iPhone. The shopper loved it, Bowring reported -- right up until the TV and the other devices went blank.

The word "Abort" appeared in the middle of the screen. Geek Squad technicians rushed over. The shopper handed back the $50 gift card.

"'This is football season,' he said," Bowring recalled.