Global energy usage has risen in recent years, fueled by a near doubling of energy consumption in China since 2004, the global proliferation of energy-hungry connected devices, and increasing reliance on massive data centers that store and transmit digital information. This is putting tremendous pressure on power companies to meet growing usage demand while cost-effectively managing a rapidly evolving energy grid comprising multiple types and sources of energy.

Energy companies and governments thus are eager to develop highly efficient energy management systems that can support smart grids. Enter quantum computing, which holds the promise of solving complex computational problems — such as managing a smart energy grid — in a fraction of the time required by classical computing.

Concise definitions of quantum computing are hard to come by, in large part because it truly is paradigm-shattering technology. In short, classical computers store and manipulate individual bits of information, each of which is recognized as either a 1 or 0. Quantum computers transcend this limited binary structure by using quantum bits (or qubits), which can be identified as 1’s, 0’s, or both at once. The fluid state of qubits enables exponentially faster computing. (Here’s a far more detailed explanation of how quantum computing works from MIT Technology Review.)

Quantum computing energy initiatives

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has been supporting the 2018 National Quantum Initiative Act with hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for quantum computing research and construction of quantum centers. While the DOE funding is earmarked for research across numerous industries and applications (including medicine, science and defense), several private and public partnerships are focusing specifically on how to use quantum computing in the energy sector.

ExxonMobil and IBM struck a joint research deal last year to explore the use of quantum computing in developing next-generation energy technologies “to address computationally challenging problems across a variety of applications, including the potential to optimize a country’s power grid, and perform more predictive environmental modeling …,” the energy giant said in announcing the partnership.

Microsoft and the Dubai Electricity and Water Authority (DEWA) are working together to apply quantum computing-based solutions that would allow DEWA to optimize resources from multiple sources of energy to meet shifting consumption demands in real time.

In a joint program between Oak Ridge and Los Alamos National Laboratories, researchers are trying to develop a way to better secure the power grid by using quantum key distribution (QKD) to quickly determine whether a hacker is penetrating a system.

Scale and stability issues

But there are formidable technical obstacles to overcome before quantum computing is commonly deployed in the energy sector and elsewhere. Chief among them is the unstable nature of qubits, which can lapse into decoherence from even minor interactions with the quantum computer’s immediate environment (such as slight changes in temperature, vibrations, noise and electromagnetic waves), resulting in computational errors and collapse of the qubit. Some types of qubits can be stabilized only by keeping their operating environment at subspace temperatures (460 below zero).

The inability of qubits to maintain their state makes scaling quantum computing difficult. The Los Alamos and Oak Ridge teams, for example, still must prove that quantum encryption keys can travel the kinds of distances covered by a nationwide power grid.

Although timelines vary, researchers expect quantum computing (along with machine learning and automation) to increase grid efficiency and security across the entire energy value chain, from power generation and transmission to distribution and demand management. The result should be cleaner electric grids that can handle fluctuations in power use in real time, anticipate short- and long-term demand, and harness energy from a growing list of renewable sources as needed.