There are few things as ubiquitous and essential to our day-to-day lives as electricity, yet we know so little about it. Most homeowners and office workers know next to nothing about where the power they rely on comes from, how much they're using right this instant, and how much it's costing them. As long as the lights are on, we're apparently happy to remain in the dark about the rest of the equation.

Which, when you think about it, is a deeply twisted scenario. Imagine, just for instance, if your car's fuel gauge was mounted in the spare-wheel compartment in the trunk, and you just stopped at regular intervals to fill up the tank and then waited on a monthly bill to find out what you'd paid for your gas recently.

In an age of omnipresent, voluminous information, this data gap would surely be fairly easy — and profitable — to fill. This, of course, is one of the key factors in the value proposition of the smart grid, and it's why the whole smart grid phenomenon is one of the hottest plays in investment circles, churning out innovations at a rate last seen in the early days of the Internet.

As Canada's Globe and Mail reports, the latest device is an obvious one: a smart plug. The TalkingPlug from Toronto-based Zerofootprint, to be precise — a wall outlet that not only knows how much power it's feeding the appliances and gadgets plugged into it but can tell your desktop or your handheld exactly how much juice it's feeding you and what it's costing you, and give you the option of switching off unnecessary lights and "vampire" power-draining devices on standby at the touch of a smartphone screen.

"The ability to drill down and see exactly what you’re using and how you’re using it is very significant," energy analyst Marion Fraser tells the Globe.

Why? Because for the first time ever, your power use will be visible, comprehensible and interactive, plug by plug. As countless recent studies have shown, the invisibility of energy use is one of the biggest hurdles toward greater energy efficiency. (Landis & Gyr, the maker of a smart, in-home smart metering device called the ecoMeter, has tallied up many of them in this study.)

The simple fact of making power flows known — by putting electricity meters inside the house instead of outside — can lead to big efficiency gains; add in time-of-use pricing and real-time displays of that use, build in a few other smart apps and management tools, and pretty soon you're looking at massive gains. A test run by Colorado's Xcel Energy in 2007, for example, found that time-of-use pricing, smart meters and automated thermostats could reduce energy use as much as 54 percent at moments of peak demand. And since it's estimated that just a 5 percent reduction in peak energy demand across the U.S. could eliminate the need for more than 600 new power plants by 2025, these are by no means small steps toward a cleaner energy future.

What's more, the smart grid promise for consumers goes well beyond saving a bit of money at each plug. Get R&D labs humming on this stuff, and the future looks bright indeed. When Amory Lovins' pioneering Rocky Mountain Institute brought together energy companies, automakers, academics and technology innovators to discuss the idea, for example, they came up with an intoxicating "Smart Garage" scenario in which not only would your appliances do their heaviest work at night when power's cheap, but in which your car would become both battery and moneymaking power generator.

The full description is in the introduction to this final report; in the short version, you'd fuel up your electric vehicle on the cheap by night, drive it to work and then make back what you'd spent in fuel by selling at peak times through a smart plug at your workplace's parking lot. Add in the kind of savings promised by a suite of gadgets like the TalkingPlug, and the information drought around electricity use seems poised to become a cost-cutting deluge.

Forgot to turn off the lights? There's an app for that
Zerofootprint's TalkingPlug device turns everyday electrical outlets into miniature communications hubs, allowing remote monitoring and control of energy use by