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John Engle
John Engle
Articles (541) 

Exelon: ComEd Embraces Quantum Computing to Navigate Power Grid Disruption

The key to sustainable electric power might be found in the energy of spinning electrons

March 03, 2020 | About:

Commonwealth Edison Company (ComEd), a subsidiary of Chicago-based Exelon Corp. (NASDAQ:EXC), has been quick to embrace the potential of quantum computing. On Feb. 27, ComEd hosted an elite assembly of engineering, physics and computer science researchers and practitioners to discuss quantum computing and its practical applications for distributed energy resources in the smart grid of the future. The daylong workshop was supported by the University of Chicago and the University of Denver. ComEd played host to participants from a number of top research institutions, including the Argonne and Oak Ridge national laboratories.

I was able to attend as an observer, and to speak with a number of influencers. I came away with intriguing insights that should interest any serious energy investor.

Quantum computing 101

Computers have transformed the way people live, work and play in fundamental ways. Progress has been astonishingly swift. Problems that would have required a sprawling complex of servers to solve a generation ago can now be handled by most handheld devices. Unfortunately, there are limitations to what classical computers can achieve, as IBM (IBM) has explained:

“We experience the benefits of classical computing every day. However, there are challenges that today’s systems will never be able to solve. For problems above a certain size and complexity, we don’t have enough computational power on Earth to tackle them. To stand a chance at solving some of these problems, we need a new kind of computing.”

The answer may lie in quantum computing, which has the ability to scale exponentially in a way that classical computing cannot:

“All computing systems rely on a fundamental ability to store and manipulate information. Current computers manipulate individual bits, which store information as binary 0 and 1 states. Quantum computers leverage quantum mechanical phenomena to manipulate information. To do this, they rely on quantum bits, or qubits…Universal quantum computers leverage the quantum mechanical phenomena of superposition and entanglement to create states that scale exponentially with number of qubits.”

The aim of a practical quantum computer is to harness quantum systems that mimic the efficiency of natural interactions at the subatomic level.

Electrifying potential

Utility companies across the country have been forced to come to terms with a changing environment. A proliferation of renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, has resulted in an increasingly decentralized power grid. The trend is set to accelerate over the next several years. It is already creating problems of complexity. Thanks to the integration of new energy sources, as well as two-way power distribution, utilities’ traditional computational models have come under increasing strain, magnifying the challenge of system-wide load management.

To explore the implications of this disruption, ComEd built the nation’s first microgrid network, connecting its Bronzeville Community Microgrid to the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Perfect Power System. The system has served as a testing ground for distributed, decentralized energy transmission. It has revealed the limitations of its classical computing model. On Feb. 27, Aleksi Paaso, ComEd director of distribution planning and smart grid innovation, contended that quantum computers may offer the solution:

“ComEd has been developing systems to monitor and control grid conditions with greater speed and accuracy. Quantum computing could give us much greater insight into how power can be measured and managed. Quantum computing might play a role in deploying such distributed energy resources at scale. We’re working toward a future in which the smart grid will use renewable resources efficiently at a local level or across a regional network.”

Quantum computers could prove to be more powerful than conventional supercomputers in solving specialized problems, including modeling a “smart grid” that draws from renewable resources such as solar panels and geothermal generators.

Investing in the future

The power grid is facing unprecedented disruption, and that may threaten the stability of some energy providers in the years ahead. ComEd Vice President for Engineering and Smart Grid Shay Bahramirad highlighted the scale of the challenge, as well as the opportunity, now facing energy utilities:

“The greatest engineering challenge of this generation is to integrate large quantities of clean power to the electric grid. We’re hoping that by bringing industry and research practitioners together, we can collaborate on the technology transfer that will produce practical ways to make power systems more sustainable and resilient. Power engineering has a distinguished history, while quantum computing is only just getting started. But similar to what Walt Whitman said to Ralph Waldo Emerson, we greet them at the start of a great future.”

ComEd has been quick to embrace disruption and has worked to build a network of technology transfer partners that now includes the University of Denver and the Illinois Institute of Technology. Last month’s workshop presented an important example of how ComEd is moving the ball forward. Brainstorming had an important role in the workshop, furthering the pursuit of technology transfer collaborations across disciplines that may lead to new applications for quantum computing and meet the challenges of power systems technology.

Verdict

Energy investors cannot afford to ignore the changes sweeping across the industry. They would be wise to look to the example of ComEd when searching for long-term opportunities. Technology will be key to success in the years ahead. Companies like Exelon, which have encouraged their subsidiaries to explore and invest in disruption and innovation, may offer rich rewards.

Disclosure: No positions.

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About the author:

John Engle
John Engle is president of Almington Capital Merchant Bankers and chief investment officer of the Cannabis Capital Group. John specializes in value and special situation strategies. He holds a bachelor's degree in economics from Trinity College Dublin, a diploma in finance from the London School of Economics and an MBA from the University of Oxford.

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