Going atomic scale with quantum computing in the power sector


Energy and utility companies are starting to look to the quantum world for the increasingly complex computational challenges facing the sector.

Load balancing is becoming more and more complex as the power system decentralises. As the numbers of distributed energy resources and other grid connected devices grow and consumption trends become more erratic, the computations become more difficult and time consuming, making this a prime use case for the power of quantum computing.

And the potential of this advanced technology is becoming ever closer within reach as developers advance and open up their ecosystems via the cloud. There is even the prospect of a $5,000, albeit much simplified, portable desktop device aimed primarily at students from China’s Shenzhen SpinQ Technology before year end.

Quantum computing applies the properties of physics at the atomic and sub-atomic level – quantum physics – to the processing of information. Standard computers operate with binary digits or ‘bits’ with values of either 0 or 1. The quantum bits, or qubits, of quantum computers on the other hand can hold the values not only of 0 and 1 but also both values at the same time.

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The simplest analogy is a spinning coin, whose state is indeterminate as it spins and only when it stops is it either heads or tails.

This phenomenon of ‘superposition’, along with others such as ‘entanglement’ and ‘interference’ involving more than one particle, enables multiple computations simultaneously, thereby substantially reducing the computing time required for complex problems.

The qubits are manufactured from materials such as superconductors and to avoid external interference the quantum computer must be operated at extremely low temperature, close to absolute zero (-273oC).

As such quantum computers will not replace traditional computers for all tasks and at least with the current technologies are unlikely to see wide ownership in the foreseeable future. But already various energy sector companies have started to explore its potential and use cases are emerging.

Quantum speedup

As illustration of the potential of quantum computing in the energy sector, a study was conducted on both quantum and classical CPU computers of the grid optimisation use case of facility location, i.e. determining the optimum locations of facilities such as generation assets to minimise the construction, operation and energy transportation costs.

The study run for three up to 20 facilities and locations found that the computational time for the CPU core grew exponentially with the number of facilities. At 14 facilities, the quantum processor was 40 times faster taking 16 minutes compared to the CPU core’s over 11 hours. For more than 14 facilities, the single CPU reached its 12-hour timeout limit without achieving a solution.

An example of this use case is from Qubit Engineering, which has created rotor models to simulate the downstream turbulence from wind turbines in order to evaluate their optimum placement within wind farms. Qubit Engineering claims a few minutes for its quantum algorithms to produce an optimal location plan compared to the hours of older solutions.

Energy use cases

A use case that is attracting interest is next generation batteries. Daimler and Mitsubishi Chemical are independently partnering with IBM, Daimler on lithium-sulphur technology and Mitsubishi on lithium-air technology.

The aim in what is ultimately a chemical problem is to fully understand the underlying reactions to then model new and more efficient batteries.

Both cases have come up against the capacity of quantum computers. But, writes IBM Research’s senior manager for quantum applications, algorithms and theory, IBM Research Jeannette Garcia on the Daimler project, “they are already showing great promise in chemistry, towards precisely simulating complex molecules.”

Another company partnering with IBM is Exxon Mobil, which is investigating several use cases, including national power grid optimisation and the discovery of new materials for carbon capture.

One of the most recent additions to IBM’s over 80-member Quantum Network is bp.

“Next-generation computing capabilities such as quantum computing will assist in ‎solving the science and engineering challenges we will face, enabling us to reimagine energy ‎and design new lower carbon products,” says bp’s senior vice president, digital ‎science and engineering, Morag Watson.‎‎

Like IBM, Microsoft has opened its Azure Quantum platform to developers and others. Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) is one of the companies working with Microsoft.

Microsoft reports that DEWA is working closely to develop a quantum strategy, including understanding where quantum optimisation methods can be applied for greatest impact in Dubai.

Commonwealth Edison is working with local partners to investigate quantum computing applications.


Another use case that is attracting wide interest is scheduling.

NASA, for example, has been working on this problem, particularly with respect to task scheduling in space to optimise battery use.

Enel, faced with dispatch of more than 32 million jobs to tens of thousands of fieldworkers and contractors in 13 distribution companies across the group annually, has turned to improve efficiencies to quantum inspired optimisation, i.e. algorithms based on quantum concepts that are run on standard computers.

Antonio Cammisecra, head of Enel Global Infrastructure and Networks Division at Enel Group, has reported with the Q-BEAT formulation a reduction of more than 20% of travelling time with respect to working time, while overall execution time of the algorithm is sped-up more than 18 times. On a quantum computer the speedup is expected to exceed more than 500x.

“That’s why after rolling out this new quantum inspired optimisation for workforce management and jobs dispatching, we will expand this experience to other problems ranging from grid planning to investments allocation,” he writes.

One can think of other use cases that could benefit from quantum computing, such as cybersecurity, and as with all new technologies new and so far unthought use cases will emerge. And once again the energy sector appears to be at the forefront of yet another technological marvel of our age.