They say don’t use a sledgehammer to crack a nut. It’s a waste of effort, and it’s probably not very effective.

This is an important principle for countries rolling out smart meters, as Japan’s gas supplier NICIGAS has found. The utility is upgrading 850,000 meters across the country using sensors that collect only the most relevant and necessary data. This prudence is allowing the company to keep costs low, while using the latest IoT technology and real-time data to offer a whole new range of services to customers.

We look at how the data collected by these smart gas meters can transform Japan’s energy market, and how NICIGAS’ digital transformation is undergirded by a firm commitment to practicality.

The power of a smart gas meter

Japan is known for being one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world, but some industries may have been left behind. “If you look at the infrastructure, especially in the gas industry, it’s very primitive,” says Kunihiko Kashiwaya, Senior Managing Director at NICIGAS.

Traditional gas meter readings take place once a month and place a huge strain on human resources, says Kashiwaya. Equipping meters with the new IoT devices, however, makes readings much more efficient. NICIGAS now gets hourly meter readings without having to do physical checks.

The smart gas meter will also help reduce customers’ bills. There are three ways to power up a home in Japan – electricity, city gas and liquefied petroleum gas – and their prices fluctuate throughout the day. Customers get to see how much gas they use for each hour, and NICIGAS can turn this data into suggestions for how a customer could save on energy bills.

For instance, if a customer uses a lot of energy at the end of the day, NICIGAS could suggest that they use electricity, which is cheaper at night. Conversely, they could propose for a customer who requires a lot of energy in the morning to use gas, explains Yuki Matsuda, General Manager of the Information Technology Division at NICIGAS’s Energy Business Headquarters. “This ensures the customer can have a good total household energy cost,” he says.

These IoT-powered gas meters don’t just help customers lower costs, they are safer as well. In the event of an earthquake or a gas leak, the gas valve will automatically shut to prevent further disaster. This is especially important in an earthquake-prone country like Japan. Operators can also remotely shut the gas valve from the control centre, says Kashiwaya.

The smart meters collect information on leaks, which can help in scheduling tank replacements. According to Nicigas, the 50 kg tanks, which are most popular type, last for up to two months with active residential consumption. But they may have to be replaced sooner when leaks occur, Kashiwaya explains.

“Realistic innovation”

These smart gas meters will mean safer and more targeted services from gas suppliers. NICIGAS worked with UnaBiz, which is an expert in customising energy-efficient and highly scalable IoT solutions, to develop the special devices added to the meters.

The collaboration birthed a “realistic innovation”, Kashiwaya says. Adding a special IoT device on the meters only takes a few minutes, and “there’s no need for us to destroy 850,000 old existing gas meters,” he points out. High costs would only discourage energy suppliers from upgrading their equipment and, by extension, their services.

This IoT device uses a special type of network to send data from the smart meters to a central data depository. In the past, the networks available for smart meters were unnecessarily costly. “We don’t need 3G, 4G technology for transmitting gas consumption or electricity consumption data,” Kashiwaya notes.

UnaBiz uses network operator Sigfox’s 0G networks to transmit data, which do the job without racking up needless costs. These networks also allow smart meters to send data across a longer distance. They are more energy-efficient than typical networks, so the IoT device’s battery can last longer.

Next steps

Looking forward, NICIGAS wants to make its smart gas meter reader available to all gas suppliers in Japan, even if they are its competitors. It has a vision for a deregulated, more competitive energy market in Japan, which will translate to better prices and services for customers, believes Kashiwaya.

To build trust with other energy companies, NICIGAS will explore blockchain to trace the exact amount of energy consumed and delivered. “If we can install transparency and traceability in the platform, even our competitors can comfortably use our platform,” Kashiwaya says. Blockchain tracks all the changes made to a piece of information, making it an incredibly secure way to record data.

NICIGAS’s plan to upgrade existing gas meters with IoT devices is visionary yet pragmatic. It hopes to lead a new wave of digital change in Japan’s energy industry while having both its feet planted firmly on the ground, maximising the benefits of the customers as well as the efficiency of its services.