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Gas goes digital with IoT

Feb 01, 2018 By Wang Zhe, Vice President, Goldcard Smart Group; General Manager, Goldcard Cloud Division

With the widespread application of new ICT technologies, smart gas solutions based on NB-IoT and cloud computing will power unprecedented innovation in the gas industry and disrupt existing service models.


Challenges facing the gas industry

The urban gas industry has seen massive development due to a major government drive for clean energy. However, gas services involve a range of interests on many sides, including urban safety, customer satisfaction, enterprise profitability, and balancing energy demand and supply. Gas providers are also beset with multiple management problems.

Meter reading and bill payment

Gas companies deliver their product via pipeline networks. To supply and sell gas and provide services, they use meters to measure amounts and calculate charges. The accuracy and frequency of reading gas meters and the rate of timely payments directly impacts business profits and the collection efficiency of receivables.

Traditionally, meters are manually read, with bills calculated and issued at the end of each month. Paper bills are sent twice to customers who must visit service centers at the beginning of the following month to make payments, which leads to poor customer satisfaction due to the time and effort involved.

Gas supply and consumption safety

Poor network distribution and transmission and distribution leaks are other major threats that impact gas company profits. Problems include leaky pipes, metering errors, and an inability to monitor and stop theft quickly enough, leading to losses during transmission.

Gas safety is also an important aspect of gas networks. Pipeline corrosion, gas leaks, excessive pressure and temperature, and dangerous customer behaviors are issues that require remote monitoring to quickly resolve.

Tiered pricing, energy conservation, and emission reduction

Many cities across China have begun to implement tiered pricing for residential gas to balance regional supply and demand and encourage users to conserve energy and reduce emissions. With these more complex billing prices in place and increasingly frequent price adjustments, gas companies now require accurate metering. As such, traditional management models are no longer suitable.

To face these challenges, many gas companies have introduced smart gas meters based on conventional technologies including prepaid IC card meters and wireless remote reading meters. However, the former requires IC cards to store money for purchasing gas, meaning gas companies cannot monitor users' gas consumption behavior. The latter needs advanced wiring, which results in high deployment costs.

Some businesses have introduced short-range wireless meters to enable centralized meter reading using unlicensed frequency bands – the small wireless method. However, there are a number of issues with this solution, including unstable data transmission, the inability to guarantee data security, high power consumption by meters, and poor wireless network coverage.

Problems with gas companies' smart meter reading applications are more likely because different smart gas meter vendors use different communication methods for their devices, usually with propriety communication protocols and different back-end software from different vendors. For large-scale deployment, interoperability is highly complex.

NB-IoT for new energy

NB-IoT is a powerful, secure, and inexpensive long-range wireless communication technology that can solve issues with smart metering and guarantee wide coverage, low power use, and a high number of connections.

The public utility solutions provider Goldcard Smart Group and Huawei have teamed up to develop a smart gas solution based on Huawei's NB-IoT connection technology, IoT platforms, and Goldcard Smart Gas software.

With more than 2,000 customers in the gas sector, Goldcard innovations include smart meters that take automatic readings, automated cloud-based billing, self-service bill payments, and top-up services via GPRS and NB-IoT networks. It’s already connected over one million smart meters to its public cloud and provides services to more than 300 gas companies that supply over 30 million households.

In September 2017, Goldcard and Huawei jointly released the NB-IoT Smart Gas Solution white paper and, in collaboration with China Telecom and Shenzhen Gas, commercially deployed the world's first smart gas meter reading application.

The IoT Smart Gas solution adopts a cloud, pipe, device architecture that uses smart IoT meters to accurately read gas consumption and securely transmit meter readings and device data to cloud over new IoT networks such as NB-IoT. The cloud application system uses distributed computing and big data analytics to connect large numbers of meters, provide real-time billing, and enable efficient data analysis and decision-making. The system interconnects the cloud control center and meters based on service rules, facilitating functions such as remote valve shutoff alarms. It allows smart interactivity between devices and service information and between service personnel and customers on social media.

Layers and SaaS

The terminal layer combines a variety of IoT sensing terminals, with standard NB-IoT modules integrated into gas meters, flow meters, pipe network DTUs, and smart home devices. Information is uploaded to the IoT platform via NB-IoT base stations.

The network layer can be easily upgraded to provide national coverage through existing cellular networks. Compared to other LPWAN technologies, NB-IoT offers advantages such as low network construction costs, fast rollout, and wide coverage, and is the standard of choice for mainstream carriers.

On the cloud platform layer, Huawei's IoT platform supports business applications for all kinds of scenarios. Goldcard and Huawei jointly developed a standardized gas terminal model that connects to a variety of gas terminals via a southbound plug-in. A gas micro-service suite facilitates customer billing services and seamless connectivity for remote device data acquisition and control.

The solution provides a full range of SaaS applications for small and medium gas companies, including applications for demand-side management (customer management, meter reading, and billing services) and supply-side precision management (network construction, production and operations, and device O&M), which gas companies can buy on demand.

Staying secure

Goldcard and Huawei optimized a general-purpose E2E security system and introduced a Datagram Transport Layer Security (DTLS) mechanism that provides lightweight security protocols and algorithms. The system maximizes data security and minimizes terminal power consumption, and connectivity between gas meters. The EPC is based on 3GPP AKA protocols to ensure certified devices access legal networks.

3GPP NAS and AS establish secure channels between gas meters and the core network. IPsec creates a secure network channel between the wireless side and EPC. At the data transmission layer, DTLS and DTLS+ form a secure data channel between smart gas meters and the IoT platform. A public network HTTPS between the IoT platform and gas industry applications establishes a secure transmission channel.

Digital transformation

Smart gas integrated with IoT has changed the way users perceive gas services. Combined with service channels such as WeChat, Alipay, online service portals, and ATMs, users can obtain information on gas consumption, bills, and other data, and pay bills quickly and easily at home.

IoT smart gas solutions disrupt the traditional model of manual meter reading, end of month billing, and queues at service centers. Operations and service costs for gas companies are much lower and gas consumption and gas supply security risks are eliminated, while users receive value-added services. Accurate gas consumption monitoring and supply and demand analysis provide the government with quantitative information on saving energy and reducing emissions, thus supporting clean energy strategies.

Cutting meter reading costs

In 2016, a district of a city in Guangdong implemented an IoT smart gas solution, upgrading conventional meters to IoT meters. In one year, 200,000 households were upgraded to the new meters. The system carried out daily meter readings and bills were calculated automatically by a control center, allowing customers to pre-pay for their gas online. After the system went into operation, meter successful reading ratio increased from 93 percent to 100 percent. This saved the need for 135 meter readers and one service center, leading to savings in labor costs of more than 10 million yuan per year.

Reducing gas losses and increasing revenue

In 2015, a city in Hebei carried out IoT upgrades on 2,000 gas meters in three neighborhoods that used natural gas boilers for heating. After one winter period lasting months, gas consumption increased by 225,000 m3 over 2014, contributing to a 15 percent rise in revenue from gas supply. Thanks to automated meter reading using IoT technology, the successful reading ratio rose from 96 percent to 100 percent, with a 5 percent reduction in lost gas due to measures such as the online monitoring of gas consumption and troubleshooting. Precise ladder pricing calculated at the cloud end increases billing income by 6 percent over estimated billing.

As government policies continue to open up national gas networks and services, the natural gas market is set to see real-time bidding over the whole network and the introduction of on-demand allocation, market pricing, and the integration of spot commodities and futures.

Thanks to Goldcard's rich experience in gas services and cloud services and Huawei's NB-IoT technology and platform, gas companies can quickly implement various applications like smart meter reading, advanced metering, smart network scheduling, and smart home services.

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