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Quantum Computing – An Emerging Technology for the Power Grid?

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The ongoing energy transition away from fossil fuels brings difficulties in its wake. If we have lots of different power systems from large-scale electricity plants, to DERs and EVs, how are utilities going to organize it all, and ensure that the power is generated and distributed to the right place at the right time?

This is going to be a serious issue.

The increasing demand for renewable energy calls for highly-optimized grid management systems. Although renewable energy resources are free source, they are hard to predict because of various factors such as solar fluctuation, weather and wind speed. Other factors include battery storage, interconnection between transmission grids in different countries, and the integration of EVs in a bi-directional system.

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Making sense of all this and balancing out the competing demands on the system is going to take some serious computing power. Optimization methods are needed to support the network or “smart grid” operation, that is, finding the best balance between availability, efficiency, reliability and cost. Grid optimization will include power generation, transmission, distribution and demand management.

Doing such optimization on a large scale is computationally difficult. For example, to find the optimal number of power generation units for a given demand requires a computational model that grows exponentially with the number of variables added.

 

Quantum Computing Basics

 

Quantum computing provides a new method to solve complex optimization problems. A quantum computer processes information differently than a conventional or ‘classical’ computer in two fundamental ways.

Firstly, unlike a classical processing unit or a bit which can be either 0 or 1, the quantum processing unit known as a qubit can be 0 and 1 at the same time. This enables a quantum computer to simultaneously explore different solutions to a given problem before resolving the optimum answer.

Secondly, two or more distanced qubits can immediately ‘feel’ what happens to the other qubits without sending any signals. This phenomenon is known as quantum entanglement. This is what enables quantum computers to make astonishingly fast calculations.

Building a full-scale quantum computer is at the cutting edge of technology. It is going to be costly and difficult. However giant technology companies including Google, IBM, Microsoft, Alibaba re developing this, and so are many governments around the world.

 

Quantum Developments in the Utilities Sector

 

In April 2019, U.S. Department of Energy announced a plan to provide $40 million for developing new algorithms and software for quantum computers. The DOE also announced $37 million a while ago for materials and chemistry research in quantum information science.

Recently, two scientists from Cornell University conducted a systematic study of quantum computing for energy system optimization problems. Their results were published in Energy, July 2019 issue. The idea was to find the ideal location for an increasing number of power plants. The conventional computer took more than 11 hours, while the quantum computer took 16 minutes.

Quantum computers are at a very early stage of development. However they have real, practical applications in the fast-changing arena of power production and distribution. The University of Denver, in collaboration with various utilities, has established a consortium called QUEST to explore the necessities of upgrading the transmission and distribution system. It plans to create university-industry collaborations to solve emerging challenges in building the future grid by utilizing quantum information and quantum computation solutions. No doubt other quantum computing developers will likewise want to investigate possible applications of this technology.

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