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When Japan liberalised its domestic market for liquified petroleum gas (LPG) two decades ago, Nippon Gas, one of the country’s major energy retailers, decided not to follow the footsteps of incumbents that had agreed not to poach customers from each other.
Instead, the company, also known as Nicigas, started to target rival markets by offering competitive prices and higher quality services, as it strongly believed that deregulation would benefit customers and create a better society.
“Nippon Gas was the rare exception as the raison d’etre for the company was deregulation,” said Kunihiko Kashiwaya, senior managing director at Nicigas, which also supplies electricity and gas services to over 1.5 million customers in the Kanto region of Japan.
In 2017, when the market for piped gas, or city gas as it is called in Japan, was finally deregulated, Kashiwaya said the incumbents once again stuck to their own turfs. He added that market barriers were also high for newcomers who had to put in place operational systems and processes to comply with safety regulations and inspections.
As a strong proponent of market deregulation, Nicigas then created a platform to provide new players with access to operational systems and compliance services at a reasonable cost – a move that was deemed “crazy” by incumbent players at the time, Kashiwaya said.
“Even if Nippon Gas wins the game, the impact to society will be small,” he said. “But if we can build an active deregulated market, the impact can be huge, and customers can enjoy the benefits of deregulation.”
Still, there was one more thing that stood in its way. Unlike Japan’s 62 million residential electricity meters which are all smart meters, some 50 million residential LPG and city gas meters across the country remain offline and are being read manually by gas company agents once a month.
Noting that offline meters remain a bulwark for incumbent players to maintain their market share and monopolise customer data, Kashiwaya said Nicigas is now fitting 850,000 city gas meters in Japan with a network controlling unit (NCU) that turns a traditional gas meter into a Smart Meter.
Dubbed Space Hotaru, the NCU, co-developed with Singapore-based internet of things (IoT) specialist UnaBiz and Soracom, a Japanese IoT connectivity and data management platform supplier, collects and transmits gas consumption data to Nicigas every hour over a Sigfox low-power wide-area network (LPWAN) operated by Kyocera.
And through the MyNicigas mobile app, consumers can view how much gas they have consumed for the month, while allowing for more timely replacement of gas cylinders for LPG users.
In addition, the NCU reports on meter related incidents. In the event of an earthquake, for example, the gas valve is programmed to close automatically, bringing convenience and real-time security to residential properties in the earthquake-prone nation.
Besides “huge cost savings” that Nicigas expects to reap from the NCUs, Kashiwaya said having access to near real-time data also lets the company deliver value-added services, such as providing working adults with information on whether their elderly parents are active at home through utility usage patterns.
Nicigas currently offers a similar service over 3G and 4G networks, but with Sigfox technology, Kashiwaya said the company can be more cost- and energy-efficient, thanks to cheaper data transmission costs and the long lifespan of NCUs that are expected to last for at least a decade on internal batteries.
Although Nicigas may be disrupting Japan’s gas market, Kashiwaya emphasised that the goal of the company is to build an active and sustainable market, particularly in an aging society with shrinking government budgets.
The NCUs are already drawing the attention of Nicigas’s rivals and the public sector. Nicigas president and CEO Shinji Wada said the devices can be potentially fitted on all 50 million residential gas meters in Japan, as well as in public utilities infrastructure where they can be used to manage water and electricity consumption. “The market is huge,” Wada added.
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