The Smart Grid, an upgrade to our energy infrastructure driven by information technology, is unquestionably gaining momentum as an industry in its own right. But it can also be divvied up into many different segments ranging from smart meters, to transmission-line upgrades, to demand response. The fastest-growing sector within the Smart Grid is home energy management.

There has been an explosion of venture-backed enterprises looking to take advantage of this new area of interest — not to mention several major corporations, including Microsoft and Google, who also want a generous piece of the pie. But, so far, all of this has amounted to a lot of noise. Most consumers looking to increase their energy efficiency want to accomplish it as easily and simply as possible, and may be deterred by the morass of options to choose from.

What do most people want out of a home energy-management system? Interests vary. Some want to see exactly how much they are using on a granular basis, and how much it is costing them in real time. Some want a service that will generate a list of recommendations for how they can make their homes more energy-efficient. And still others, perhaps the bulk of these people, want a tool that will take care of efficiency for them, ideally without compromising their comfort.

There are services and tools tailored to meet each of these needs — but the best of all would necessarily meet all of these needs. Here, to provide some insight, are five qualities to look for in an optimum home energy-management system, and examples of companies that could provide one.

1. Simplicity. There are many people out there who consider themselves green early adopters. They are the ones that want a system to show them how much energy they are using in real time, what happens when they switch off appliances, how much electricity is costing them based on overall demand, etc. But this is only a sliver of the population that is generally interested in conserving energy in their homes. Most people don’t want to worry about it at all — they just want it to happen.

These are the same people who should consider only targeting major energy sucks in their homes, like refrigerators, and especially heating and air-conditioning systems. For example, one of the most elegant tools to make thermostats more efficient is EcoFactor, a startup that makes two-way thermostat software to automate heating and cooling, simultaneously shaving off energy (and money off your monthly bills), while maintaining your desired level of comfort.

2. Utility-free. Some of these home energy management systems only work when they can be integrated with smart meters installed by electric utilities. But not every home has a smart meter, and those that do have equipment that is wholly owned by the utility in question. For those interested in consistent energy-efficiency management, it is best to choose a solution that works regardless of whether a smart meter is installed or not.

Many of these architectures are also very simple. A prime example is The Energy Detective (which can also transmit data to the Google PowerMeter interface graphing how much energy you are using). It consists of a transducer that sits outside at your home’s power mains. The component then transmits consumption data to a very simple display that reflects the most digestible of information: How much your electricity is costing you per hour, how much electricity you are currently using, and how much your monthly bill is to date. These are very actionable figures. AlertMe, another system working with Google PowerMeter, offers the same capabilities without an upgraded meter.

3. Rule setting. Between those who watch their energy use like a hawk, and those who don’t worry about it at all, is a subset of consumers looking to play an active role in efficiency, but only to a certain extent. They want more options to be involved, but they want them to be simple to execute.

Several companies, including Control4 and Tendril, offer web-based interfaces that make it possible to set rules for your home’s energy use. For example, you can specify that you never want to pay over a certain amount at an hourly rate (so it won’t let you run your clothes dryer, or it will toggle power flowing to your fridge), or that you only want to complete certain energy intensive actions (like making ice, or charging your plug-in vehicle) during off-peak hours when energy is at its cheapest. These customers can set these rules directly in their internet browsers. That way they only have to worry about it one time, and their home will take care of the rest.

This fits into the rapidly growing trend of home automation, which includes energy-efficient lighting systems that know when to turn off or on, automatically-adjusting thermostats, and smart appliances that get their jobs done while conserving as much energy as possible.

4. Remote control. Leaving the coffee machine, pool filter, or air conditioner running after we leave the house is something we can all relate to. It’s been a problem practically since the introduction of household appliances, and it eats up a surprising amount of energy. For this reason, the best home energy management solutions also give you the option of controlling your electronics remotely.

Several venture-backed companies offer or are working on mobile applications that allow you to switch appliances on and off from your phones. Tendril, again, is a prime example of this. It offers a mobile app that not only presents you with a heat map of where the most energy is being used in your home at the time, it will eventually allow you to deactivate your pool filter from wherever you are. So the next time you leave the AC running, you won’t have to worry about racking up your bills for no reason.

5. A how-to attitude. Home energy efficiency isn’t all about automation, tracking consumption on an hourly basis, or only running certain appliances at certain times. There are a lot of simpler actions you can take that can actually have more of an impact on your overall energy use and bills. Most people aren’t aware, for example, that weatherizing your home (caulking windows, adding insulation, and the like), drastically slashes the amount of energy you use without requiring permanent changes in behavior. Even fewer people know how to accomplish these tasks, and who can help them.

Luckily, some of the home energy management systems on the market today generate detailed and custom-tailored recommendations for home improvments that can take a bite out of your electricity use. The best example here is Microsoft Hohm, a tool that will one day incorporate most of the desired qualities listed above. Not only does it operate independently from smart meters, and convey data via a simple interface, it lists efficiency actions its users can take, based on information they volunteer about their homes. It also helps them find local contractors, the right materials, and relevant discounts to get the jobs done as easily and affordably as possible.

Closely related to this kind of recommendation engine, is the ability to see how your home’s energy use and efficiency stack up against those living around you, in your neighborhood, city, state or even on a national level. That way, if your consumption greatly exceeds local averages, you can identify pain points and changes that can be made. This is also something Microsoft Hohm excels at.

It might be difficult to find a home energy management system that offers all of these features right off the bat. Even the most advanced players in the field, Tendril and Microsoft Hohm a cut above the rest, are still working on expanding these capabilities and making them easy to use. That said, there is a lot of value in choosing an easily upgradable system, that won’t require you to buy new pricey hardware, re-enter home specifications, or reset energy rules every time an advance is made.

Fortunately, the best systems out there right now will make this possible. I would suggest keeping a close eye on what Tendril, Microsoft, and Control4 are releasing. It looks like they have the best handle on what the average consumer is will to do, what motivates people, and the most strategic ways to up efficiency as much and as fast as they can.

This post is part of our ‘We Can Do This’ campaign, sponsored by the Pacific Gas & Electric Company. As always, VentureBeat is adamant about maintaining editorial objectivity. PG&E had no involvement in the content of this or other posts. You can check out its We Can Do This web site for more information.