Unlike Japan’s 62 million smart residential electricity meters, over 50 million residential LPG and city gas meters are currently offline.
The Japanese energy market was deregulated more than 20 years ago. However, corporate protectionism has hindered full liberalisation, restricting access to accurate and timely data. Led by UnaBiz and SORACOM Inc., the Smart Gas Meter makeover allows the collection of real-time data without the need for a costly and time-consuming network overhaul. The project marks one of the largest deployments of smart utility solutions to date.
- Challenges: To digitalise gas consumption management in a cost-fitting manner on a global scale.
- Solution: A retrofitted Network Controlling Unit that enables smart features and lasts at least 10 years.
- Results: Data precision, lower operational cost, better service offering, and new revenue streams.
NIPPON GAS CO. (NICIGAS) is an energy company engaged in the business of Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG), City Gas and Electricity. Since deregulation, the company has steadily grown to become one of the fastest-growing LPG retailers in the country.
Thanks to its high service quality and competitive pricing, NICIGAS currently supplies gas and electricity to more than 1.67 million customers in the Kanto region, Yamanashi prefecture, and Shizuoka prefecture.
As a strong proponent of market deregulation and how it will benefit the end customer and society as a whole, NICIGAS wants to create a platform to provide new players with access to operational systems and compliance services at a reasonable cost.
Currently, these meters are being read manually by gas company agents monthly. This method is costly, prone to errors, and dependent on a large workforce. To change that, NICIGAS has to digitise the data collection of gas consumptions.
However, unlike Japan’s 62 million smart residential electricity meters, over 50 million residential LPG and city gas meters are currently offline.
A Practical Innovation
Before working with customised IoT, hardware maker UnaBiz and Japanese IoT connectivity and data management platform supplier SORACOM, NICIGAS tested several off-the-shelf and custom-built solutions from reputable companies. None of those solutions met their technical requirements within their expected return of investment.
To answer the problem, SORACOM teamed up with UnaBiz to create the “Space Hotaru” – a Network Controlling Unit (NCU) that transmits gas consumption data to “NICIGAS Stream,” the company’s central IoT data platform.
This is done via Sigfox’s 0G wireless network operated by Kyocera Communication Systems (KCCS) in Japan.
“We currently offer a similar service over 3G and 4G networks. However, when we narrowed down the functions to a minimum, the amount of data transmitted is, in fact, tiny. This made Sigfox’s low power consumption, small payload and inexpensive connectivity the obvious answer,” said Yuki Matsuda, executive officer of information technology division, Energy Business Headquarters, NICIGAS.
NICIGAS first presented “Space Hotaru” with basic features in a hand-sketched, futuristic-looking product. The R&D and Design team from UnaBiz Taiwan took the sketch and started designing and engineering a prototype. From material casing to electronics components, and communication protocol to firmware, UnaBiz delivered an industrialised and tested hardware solution within the year. The final NCU is 3X smaller than the original prototype and still enjoys a long battery life thanks to UnaBiz’s mechanical design and firmware optimisation expertise.
Return On Investment:
- Optimised Gas Distribution: 40 percent reduction in deliveries
- Cost Saving: 10M savings in ¥ from manual reading per staff per year
- Data Precision: 720 times more data collected every month
- Total Cost Ownership: 50 percent compared to 3G/4G based NCU
- Years of Autonomy: 10 years of battery life
The 0G Network is a low-cost, long-range and energy-efficient wireless network designed to send or receive small messages between IoT devices without the hassle of installing gateways or SIM cards. 0G solutions are simple to implement, easy to manage and highly scalable for massive IoT applications.
Through MyNicigas app, customers can monitor their usage pattern and charges with more precision.
- Check daily usage of different plans, such as that of their ageing parents, on 1 screen conveniently.
- Compare payment history and usage on a simple graph to avoid peak hour charges.
- Easy to read meter statements. No more physical statements and notifications.
- Get real time notifications when meters are read, or when NICIGAS need to perform maintenance.
- Enable or disable the valve remotely when they go on a long vacation.
The Space Hotaru Can Be Deployed In Less Than 5 Minutes
To turn around the ambitious project within a short time, speed of deployment is key. The Space Hotaru is designed to be fixed onto the gas pipe quickly with a binding band. The sleek round shape allows the binding to be done in 2 minutes, and the entire installation within 5 minutes.
SORACOM further accelerated the deployment of the NCU with an app that allows deployment staff to test the NCU’s communication success rate with a specific protocol analyser in the field.
NICIGAS is currently deploying thousands of meters per day.
“Remote meter reading is just the first step in NICIGAS’s Digital Transformation efforts. The realisation of business optimisation involving the entire energy industry is next,”said Shinji Wada, President & CEO of NICIGAS.
The Next Phase: Expansion
The Space Hotarus are already drawing the attention of NICIGAS’s rivals and the public sector. According to the company’s president, the NCU can potentially be fitted on all 24 million residential LP gas meters in Japan, as well as in public utility infrastructures to manage water and electricity consumption. The gas operator has also developed the Space Hotaru under different communication standards such as LTE-M as they plan 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.
“Network coverage is the main challenge facing most massive-scale IoT projects. As an agnostic IoT solution provider, we leverage the best of each IoT technology to address our customers’ business and operational challenges,” said Henri Bong, CEO & Co-Founder of UnaBiz.
UnaBiz developed the LTE-M version to support NICIGAS’s plan for a second connectivity source and expanded their coverage while maintaining its price competitiveness, a prerequisite for reselling the smart meter reader to other gas operators in Japan.
The LTE-M connectivity is provided using the SORACOM IoT SIM, a secure, multiband SIM card designed specifically for IoT and M2M that supports blended Sigfox/cellular deployments and provides access to advanced cloud capabilities.
“Remote meter reading is just the first step. The vision is to promote a deregulated, more competitive energy market in Japan, which will translate to better prices and services for customers,” shared Kunihiko Kashiwaya, senior managing director of NICIGAS.
NICIGAS firmly believes that bringing the LP Gas distribution flow online is essential in a post-COVID-19 society. The LTE-M Space Hotaru deployment has started in 2021. NICIGAS plans to introduce Space Hotaru to its 410,000 city gas users.
The article is contributed by UNABIZ. Images are published with permission from UNABIZ.
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