Nippon Gas Company Limited (NICIGAS) supplies liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and liquefied natural gas (LNG) to over 1.3 million customers in Japan. About 60 per cent of its customers have opted for LPG supply, while the remaining 40 per cent have opted for city gas or LNG. Apart from gas supply, NICIGAS sells gas appliances for residential use, and remodels/renovates residential equipment and appliances, primarily in the Kanto region.
When Japan liberalised its domestic market for LPG over two decades ago, Nippon Gas, one of the country’s major energy retailers, decided not to follow in the footsteps of the incumbents, which had agreed not to poach each other’s customers. Instead, the company started targeting rival markets by offering competitive prices and higher quality services, as it strongly believed that deregulation would benefit customers and create a better society. In 2017, when the market for city gas was finally deregulated, NICIGAS created a platform to provide new players with access to operational systems and compliance services at a reasonable cost. However, unlike Japan’s 62 million residential electricity meters, which are all smart meters, a large number of residential LPG and city gas meters across the country remained offline. Such gas meters were being read manually by gas company agents once a month. Since offline meters remained a bulwark for incumbent players to maintain their market share and monopolise customer data, NICIGAS decided to fit 850,000 city gas meters in Japan with a network controlling unit (NCU), which would turn a traditional gas meter into a smart meter.
Smart meter deployment
NICIGAS has retrofitted its existing gas meters across Japan with a smart makeover. The NCU, called Space Hotaru, has been co-developed with Singapore-based internet of things (IoT) specialist UnaBiz, and a Japanese IoT connectivity and data management platform supplier, SORACOM. It collects and transmits gas consumption data to NICIGAS’s IoT data platform, NICIGAS Stream, every hour over a Sigfox low power wide area network operated by Kyocera, allowing the gas valve to be controlled remotely.
The NCU is energy efficient and can last for more than 10 years on internal batteries. The Space Hotaru can be easily retrofitted into existing gas meters to enable smart features. It has been designed to be fixed on to gas pipes quickly with a binding band. Further, its sleek round shape allows the binding to be completed in a couple of minutes, and the entire installation to be completed within five minutes.
Making real-time gas metering a reality
The new smart reader addresses a key issue that the gas industry commonly faces – collecting data in a cost-effective way to allow for real-time insights. With the adoption of the Space Hotaru, meter data that used to be read manually by agents once a month is now collected by the NCU on an hourly basis, and sent to the NICIGAS Stream daily. The collected data is used to visualise and predict the amount of gas remaining in households, allowing the timely replacement of gas cylinders and improving the quality of service for its consumers.
Through the MyNicigas mobile app, consumers can view how much gas they have consumed for the month. In addition, the NCU reports on meter-related incidents. In the event of an earthquake, the gas valve has been programmed to auto-close to ensure convenience and real-time security.
The Space Hotaru is already drawing the attention of NICIGAS’s rivals as well as the public sector. The NCU can potentially be fitted on all 24 million residential LPG meters in Japan, as well as on public utility infrastructure to manage water and electricity consumption. Going forward, NICIGAS plans to offer its Space Hotaru and the integrated system supported by NICIGAS Stream to other gas and energy retailers. The gas operator is also developing the Space Hotaru under different communication standards such as LTE-M, as its plans to resell the solution to other gas providers. The LTE-M Space Hotaru will allow NICIGAS to switch off the valves within 30 minutes in the event of an emergency.
Advanced business cloud system
Japan’s energy business is accelerating its move towards deregulation. In light of this trend, NICIGAS has been preparing to verify and begin the operation of its core business cloud system “Kumo no Uchusen”, which utilises a link between cloud services and mobile devices, in order to become an integrated energy company. The Kumo no Uchusen business system uses on-site mobile devices to automatically check for issues in safety systems. The data is automatically processed by the cloud system, then synchronised with the necessary departments and locations, accurately and in real time, thereby providing an extremely advanced safety structure. The system makes it possible to install a QR code on the gas meters of all customers that use propane gas, and use a smartphone to read the QR code and acquire the latest customer information in real time via the cloud.
The Kumo no Uchusen business system could have a significant impact not only in the gas industry, but also in other energy businesses, including electric power and water supply. It contributes to the consolidation and streamlining of work in a variety of areas. Taking this into account, NICIGAS has established Kumo no Uchusen Company Limited, a joint venture with KDDI Corporation and Hitachi Capital Corporation, in order to sell the system to different energy businesses as an effective tool, in anticipation of the future deregulation of energy.
NICIGAS is a prime example of the benefits that a smart IoT connectivity platform brings to large-scale deployments. The combination of IoT technology and cloud capability allows businesses to connect devices quickly, affordably and securely anywhere in the world, while increasing efficiency, sustainability and customer satisfaction. With more precise gas consumption data collected with the help of the Space Hotarus, NICIGAS has been able to better analyse its demand and supply, and turn them into actionable insights for its logistics and distribution channels to achieve maximum resource efficiency. In addition, the innovation has enabled the company to propose optimal energy usage plans to its existing and potential customers. NICIGAS expects that the NCU project will give the company a technology edge, not only in shifting the Japanese consumer market, but on the global energy front as well. Within a few years, the Space Hotarus will be collecting data from over 1 million users for NICIGAS.