Investments aligned with this Strategic Goal aim to improve energy transmission and distribution infrastructure to support the global transition to clean energy.

The sections below include an overview of the approach for achieving desired goals, supporting evidence, core metrics that help measure performance toward goals, and a curated list of resources to support collecting, reporting on, and using data for decision-making.


Dimensions of Impact: WHAT

Investors interested in deploying this strategy should consider the scale of the addressable problem, what positive outcomes might be, and how important the change would be to the people (or planet) experiencing it.

Key questions in this dimension include:

What problem does the investment aim to address? For the target stakeholders experiencing the problem, how important is this change?

Existing transmission and distribution (T&D) systems for electricity, which leave around 10% of the global population without access to electricity, were designed to use large-scale, centralized generation assets and to carry electricity only from generators to customers (1,2).

Renewable energy generation can be either utility-scale, with centralized, large-scale power plants feeding electricity to the grid (usually through a power purchase agreement with a utility), or distributed, whether small-scale (like rooftop projects) or community-scale (larger than rooftop projects but smaller than utility-scale). Distributed generation can be off-grid, or it can connect to the grid through distribution lines (3). Grid-connected distributed generation “behind the meter” decreases on-site demand but does not supply power to the grid. Front-of-meter generation, by contrast, provides energy to off-site locations through grid transmission lines.

Centralized, utility-scale generation is generally cheaper due to economies of scale. As of November 2018, the levelized cost of rooftop solar was an estimated three-and-a-half to seven times higher than that of utility-scale solar (4). Utility-scale power generators are also easier for grid operators to integrate, as they can interface with utilities’ existing systems to control and track the supply of power into the grid, which simplifies grid forecasting. On the other hand, distributed generation reduces T&D losses, improving energy efficiency and reducing the need for new investments in T&D infrastructure. Historically, grid extensions have been the primary pathway for improving access to electricity, accounting for 97% of new electricity connections globally since 2000 (5). Off-grid distributed generation can reduce the need for grid extensions, while grid-connected distributed generation offers communities autonomy and the option of using the most affordable source at any given time. Thus, despite the higher levelized cost, decentralized renewable energy systems may be attractive for areas not well-served by a main grid.

In terms of T&D systems, the clean energy transition faces two primary challenges: distributed generation and intermittency.

Distributed generation: Distributed generation and storage allows customers not only to use but also to produce, store, and sell electricity which, in turn, requires that power flow both from the grid to the consumer and vice versa (6). Additionally, as more communities are electrified, the number of active customers rises, changing the load profile of networks with distributed generation by reducing demand for electricity from central generation. In most markets, the regulatory frameworks, requirements (including revised roles for network operators), and network technology necessary to facilitate these changes have not yet been fully implemented or developed. Reliable schemes for valuing distributed generation are also needed.

Intermittency: Because of the natural variability of the resources upon which they rely, wind and solar are not dispatchable; they cannot provide more electricity when demand peaks. Failure by T&D systems to accommodate this variability in clean energy supply and demand can lead to power shortages and blackouts. To avoid these, electricity from non-intermittent (often non-renewable) sources must be rapidly dispatched during peak hours that are matched by falling generation of renewables. Delaying or ignoring upgrades to T&D systems risks over-relying on dispatchable natural gas as renewable energy production continues to increase, stalling progress towards 100% green energy.

Further complicating matters, the COVID-19 pandemic has cooled investment in T&D infrastructure, with global spending on transmission and capital spending on distribution falling respectively by 10% and 6% in 2020 (7). In developing countries, investments in T&D are financed primarily by debt-laden, state-owned utilities that were in weak financial positions before COVID, presenting particularly acute challenges. Worsening this situation is the likely rise of sovereign debt risks and realignment of fiscal policies as a result of budget shortfalls and the need for stimulus spending.

Note: This Strategic Goal specifically concerns the improvement of T&D infrastructure. Organizations focused on energy storage and/or other clean energy–enabling technologies may consult the Strategic Goals Increasing Clean Energy Storage Capacity through Improved Batteries and Other Technologies and Increasing Clean Energy Generation through Low- and Zero-Carbon Alternatives, both under the Clean Energy impact theme.

Investments to improve T&D infrastructure can:

  • support digital technologies, including smart meters and smart or IoT (Internet of Things) sensors; network remote control and automation systems; and network data collection and aggregation, including real-time network monitoring and optimization;
  • upgrade existing AC transmission systems to interconnect more renewable energy;
  • advance the development and deployment of renewable-based microgrids, particularly in the context of rural electrification projects;
  • increase power transfer and stability on existing transmission lines by reconductoring lines with advanced materials, adding second circuits to transmission towers, and adding synchronous condensers;
  • finance the deployment, technical maintenance, and management of both the distributed generation of clean energy and systems to connect these sources to the grid; and
  • build transmission lines between areas with abundant renewable resources and areas with high electricity demand, thereby increasing the value of renewables and reducing intermittency-related uncertainty.

What is the scale of the problem?

According to the International Energy Agency, overall grid spending will need to rise by about 50% over the next decade to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals (8). The current trajectory of grid spending leaves a financing gap that must be addressed to support electrification and further integrate renewable energy. Bloomberg New Energy Finance assesses the size of investment required at USD 14 trillion over the next three decades, rising from USD 235 billion annually in 2020 to USD 636 billion annually by 2050 (9). Both the decentralization of generation assets and the growing digitization of energy infrastructure will drive this need for financing.

Under existing trajectories for the energy sector, 750 million people will still lack access to electricity in 2050, and about twice as many will continue to rely on traditional bioenergy for cooking (10).


Dimensions of Impact: WHO

Investors interested in deploying this strategy should consider whom they want to target, as almost every strategy has a host of potential beneficiaries. While some investors may target women of color living in a particular rural area, others may set targets more broadly, e.g., women. Investors interested in targeting particular populations should focus on strategies that have been shown to benefit those populations.

Key questions in this dimension include:

Who (people, planet, or both) is helped through investments aligned with this Strategic Goal?

Specific target stakeholders of this Strategic Goal include the following.

  • Planet: Improved T&D can better integrate renewable energy into the grid, reducing reliance on fossil fuels. In Australia, for instance, a controllable, renewable-based microgrid connected to the national electricity network could potentially provide zero-emissions electricity for all of North Queensland (11). Further, if current climate pledges are kept, 22 billion metric tons of CO2 would still be emitted globally in 2050, consistent with a temperature rise in 2100 of 2.1°C. According to the International Energy Agency, investments in network infrastructure will be critical to achieve net-zero emissions (12).
  • Un-electrified communities: Both distributed and utility-scale generation can improve energy access for rural, isolated, and off-grid—broadly, unelectrified—communities. Renewable-based microgrids, in particular, work well in remote areas where expansions of the central grid are inefficient due to insufficient central energy service to extend power, reduced grid reliability, T&D losses, and construction challenges (13). Rural electrification spurs broad enhancements in quality of life, including through advancements in access to education, health, and financial services, among other necessities (14). IRIS+ users may also find the Strategic Goals under the Energy Access theme relevant when considering community impacts.
  • Communities in climate hotspots: Extreme weather events related to climate change raise the risk of damage to T&D infrastructure, including power plants, transmission lines, transformers, and substations. For instance, in 2017, Hurricane Maria damaged a quarter of all transmission lines and two-fifths of all substations in Puerto Rico’s centralized grid (15). Residents were left to depend on Inefficient, noisy, and polluting diesel and gasoline-powered generators. Renewable-based microgrids that maintain connections to the central grid can help avert such crises in climate hotspots. A centralized grid may take years to rebuild, and damage in one area could mean other areas must go offline to avoid further damage. Community microgrids can distribute risk; if one microgrid fails, it can be disconnected from the grid and restored—or others around it can disconnect to operate independently. In the face of outages from the central grid, communities can maintain access to electricity through an autonomously operating microgrid.
  • Communities lacking access to clean cooking fuel: Traditional cooking methods, including open fires and other bioenergy, have adverse health and environmental impacts (16). Inefficient in energy use, they produce household air pollution linked to heart and lung diseases and, in millions of households, premature deaths. Improved energy access and affordability can enable the adoption of electric cooking solutions, including pressure cookers, rice cookers, and induction stoves. Renewable-based microgrids can therefore make cooking not only healthier and more environmentally sustainable but also, through high-efficiency electric appliances, more cost-effective than traditional cooking methods (17). IRIS+ users may also find the following Strategic Goals relevant when considering health impacts, both under the Energy Access theme: Reducing Harmful Emissions of Small-Scale Energy Sources and Improving Energy Alternatives for Cooking.
  • Low- and middle-income communities: Improved T&D infrastructure makes power more reliable and affordable (by reducing the cost of transmission). In the United States, for instance, investments in transmission generally yield energy savings several times greater than their cost (18). Low-income households, especially in developing countries, direct a large share of income towards energy, including expensive, low-quality sources such as kerosene, candles. retail-based mobile phone chargers, and dry cell batteries (19). Providing access to utility-scale electricity can deliver more affordable energy, alleviating poverty alleviation and enhance energy justice. Households with electricity bills that require a high share of their income may benefit from the low-cost electricity potentially delivered by both community and behind-the-meter solar systems (20). Similarly, a microgrid, if connected to a utility grid, can either source electricity from the network or generate its own, offering connected communities whichever energy supply costs the least.

What are the geographic attributes of those who are affected?

Around 90% of those expected to still lack access to electricity in 2030 will be in rural areas (21). Under current global energy policies, more than 95% of those without access to electricity in 2050 will be in sub-Saharan Africa (22). At the same time, even in India, which has successfully implemented rural electrification in recent years, over 99% of new electricity access has been provided by grid extensions—and over 75% facilitated by coal (23).

For clean cooking fuel, too, lack of access is centered on developing Asia and Africa. About two-thirds of those currently without access to clean cooking fuel, or 1.6 billion people, are in developing Asia, and less than a fifth of the population in sub-Saharan Africa had access to clean cooking fuel as of 2018 (24). Under stated energy policies, use of clean cooking fuel on the continent will expand by 2030, but barely in excess of population growth, so the number of those without access will rise to over 1 billion by 2030. Critically, in India and China, recent progress away from traditional biomass and kerosene has been enabled almost entirely by liquified petroleum gas (LPG) and natural gas, not clean energy. Therefore, investments in T&D infrastructure in developing economies to integrate renewables into the energy mix can not only alleviate energy poverty but also curtail the use of fossil fuels in those economies.

Broadly, T&D investment can help greatly reduce pollution from fossil fuel-based power plants located in or near population centers (25). Such investments that spur clean energy adoption in both developed and developing megacities can directly reduce both carbon emissions and the health risks of polluting power plants, which are frequently located in disadvantaged communities. In this way, investments in transmission address both energy and environmental justice.


Dimensions of Impact: CONTRIBUTION

Investors considering investing in a company or portfolio aligned with this strategy should consider whether the effect they want to have compares to what is likely to happen anyway. Is the investment's contribution ‘likely better’ or ‘likely worse’ than what is likely to occur anyway across What, How much and Who?

Key questions in this dimension include:

How can investments in line with this Strategic Goal contribute to outcomes, and are these investments’ effects likely better, worse, or neutral than what would happen otherwise

Organizations can consider contribution at two levels—enterprise and investor. At the enterprise level, contribution is “the extent to which the enterprise contributed to an outcome by considering what would have otherwise happened in absence of their activities (i.e., a counterfactual scenario).” To learn more about methods for assessing counterfactuals, see the Impact Management Project.

Investments in improving transmission and distribution infrastructure can contribute as follows:

  • Signal that impact matters: By Investing in T&D infrastructure, investors demonstrate that expanding and modernizing transmission will be critical to increasing the percentage of renewables in the energy mix and realizing global emissions targets. They can show that new innovations and deployment mechanisms can resolve concerns about intermittency and that distributed generation, though complex, presents an opportunity to improve energy access. In this vein, they also signal that the clean energy transition will be incomplete without an effort to ensure universal access to affordable energy.

    Directing more capital to T&D also signals policymakers. The potential to attract investment, particularly foreign direct investment, can incentivize regulatory changes that encourage utilities, especially state-backed utilities, to pursue modernization projects. Further, the deployment of catalytic private capital and the desire to attract larger, commercial investors can spur state investment in T&D infrastructure.

  • Engage actively: Investors can promote the increased deployment of both utility-scale and distributed clean-energy generation infrastructure to ensure that T&D investments can realize their full potential for emissions reduction. At the national, state, and local levels, investors can advocate and partner with policymakers on the development of new regulatory regimes to facilitate the management of smart grids, distributed generation assets, and microgrids connected to the central grid. Similarly, they can advocate for incentives that reward utilities for adopting clean energy and improving energy efficiency. Finally, investors can encourage communities and companies, especially small and medium-sized enterprises in isolated areas, to invest in microgrids, including by providing financing facilities for such efforts.
  • Grow new or undersupplied markets: Improving transmission and distribution is capital-intensive in terms of both significant research and development and up-front installation costs. Patient capital and an aligned risk appetite can develop and scale innovative T&D projects. For underserved or un-electrified communities, these investments can improve energy access and affordability, lowering a critical barrier to business growth in undersupplied markets.
  • Provide flexible capital: Transmission and distribution infrastructure has a long lifetime, stretching decades; at the same time, meaningful returns from this infrastructure can also take decades. Investors that deploy patient capital, including blended finance, can enable T&D infrastructure to be built that would otherwise have not been. In developing countries, especially, where state-led T&D investments have fallen as a result of budget pressures related to the COVID-19 pandemic, investors have opportunities to close a significant financing gap.

How Much

Dimensions of Impact: HOW MUCH

Investors deploying capital into investments aligned with this strategy should think about how significant the investment's effect might be. What is likely to be the change's breadth, depth, and duration?

Key questions in this dimension include:

How many target stakeholders can experience the outcome through investments aligned with this Strategic Goal?

Because electricity is globally consumed and energy transmission systems are critical to energy infrastructure, investments in this Strategic Goal can impact almost everyone and all energy sectors. In 2020, around 790 million people lacked access to electricity. The International Energy Agency’s net-zero emissions pathway (by 2050) features a commitment to universal energy access by 2030, which will require annual investments in transmission to increase three-fold over the next decade (26). The potential reach of investments to improve T&D relates to the quality of energy access, too. In India, for instance, though rural areas are now almost entirely connected to the grid, supply is frequently disrupted, with many communities having just 8-12 hours of electricity per day (27).

Universal energy access includes access to clean cooking fuel. With population growth, between now and 2030, universal energy access will require about 2.8 billion people to receive access to clean cooking fuel for the first time (28). The net-zero emissions pathway has electricity becoming the primary cooking fuel for nearly 60% of developing-country households, up from just around 10% today (29). Investments in T&D related to both microgrids and the central grid will be required to enable electric cooking solutions.

Under a sustainable development scenario that involves reaching a net-zero global economy by 2050, only around two-fifths of newly created jobs would be located close to worksites (30). Generally, jobs in a net-zero economy will be more geographically flexible and widely distributed. Presently, manufacturing capacity for clean energy technology, especially batteries and solar photovoltaic cells, is concentrated in first-mover regions, such as China. Accelerating the deployment of T&D infrastructure can unlock new production capacity in new regions, including in rural and underserved areas.

In the United States alone, investments in 22 critical transmission projects would create 600,000 new jobs, and building up the renewable energy capacity enabled by these investments would create an additional 640,000 jobs (31). Even without accounting for the jobs created by additional wind and solar deployment, direct current projects create around 11 direct jobs per USD 1 million of expenditure, while alternating current projects create around 27 direct jobs per USD 1 million of expenditure.

How much change can target stakeholders experience through investments aligned with this Strategic Goal?

The exact amount of change effected by investments in T&D systems will depend on the surrounding policy environment, access to clean energy sources, and growth in storage capacity. Stable policy that directly or indirectly supports the transition to 100% clean energy can ensure that universal energy access is not only achievable but also sustainable. The impact that target stakeholders experience as a result of investments aligned with this Strategic Goal will also depend on the region’s existing grid capacity and levels of energy poverty. Transmission lines themselves, if kept clean, can last up to a century (32).

In the United States, achieving a 90% clean-powered grid by 2035 would require a USD 100 billion investment in expanding T&D and could reduce wholesale electricity costs by 10%, which would translate into lower retail electricity prices for consumers (33). Under stated policies and current trends of technological advancement, wholesale electricity costs would actually be 12% higher in 2035. Alternatively, doubling the share of renewables in the country’s energy supply would require about USD 70 billion in transmission investment (34). Though a small share of the USD 690 billion in total investment required to achieve this goal, transmission investments would enable other key investments—in distributed solar, utility solar, onshore and offshore wind, and storage—to realize their potential emissions reduction.

In developing economies, the opportunities for meaningful change are substantial. For instance, in the state of Jharkhand in India, the Mlinda initiative has deployed and operates 45 solar photovoltaic-hybrid minigrids (35). About 7,000 households have been connected to the minigrid network, providing electricity to 40,000 people and leading to reduced greenhouse gas emissions, tangible increases in revenues for local enterprises, higher household incomes and employment, and improved outcomes for women and children (36).


Dimensions of Impact: RISK

Key questions in this dimension include:

What impact risks do investments aligned with this Strategic Goal run? How can investments mitigate them?

The following are several impact risk factors for investments in line with this Strategic Goal:

  • Stakeholder Participation Risk: Investments in T&D will require investment in different policy and regulatory siloes, as distributed generation makes system planning and management more complex (37). Regulators, for their part, can help to define the various functions of asset owners and developers and network operators. The following are some siloes that present notable risks:

    • Siloes along the value chain: Greater coordination and information exchange will be needed between transmission system operators (TSOs) and distributed system operators (DSOs) to ensure safe and secure network operation. Evolving regulatory paradigms and new technologies can delegate and facilitate tasks like congestion management, real-time monitoring, and networking planning.
    • Siloes among technologies: Grid and grid-edge technologies such as electric vehicles and storage are complementary but not yet necessarily coordinated. Maximizing value and energy efficiency will require bolstering all nodes in the system of electricity generation and consumption.
    • Siloes between industries: Convergence and collaboration among the energy sector and other industries, such as telecommunications and automotive, will be required as information technology and new devices are integrated into the grid.
    • Siloes geographically: Increased distributed generation will increase the need for cohesive policy frameworks across national, sub-national, and local lines. Further, given increasing urbanization, especially in developing economies, city and local governments must play an increasingly important role in deploying grid-edge technologies. National and state policymakers must work with these local governments to ensure efficient deployment. Similarly, addressing intermittency will require harmonized power generation policies among regions and improved frameworks for energy exchange or trade.

  • Efficiency Risk: Especially remote, isolated communities may not benefit from improved T&D networks as much as they would off-grid systems that might be more affordable and efficient in that context. To mitigate this risk, investors should carefully analyze alternative approaches to expand clean energy in a particular context.

  • Unexpected impact Risk: Laying transmission lines has environmental impact of its own, particularly if buried (rather than installed overhead), which requires a continuous trench or duct bank with considerable clearing and grading (38). Further, lines create noise pollution and need transition stations, which separately involve grading, building access roads, and constructing water-management facilities. Underground lines also disturb soil across the entire transmission route; site restoration to pre-construction conditions is expensive and may take years.

    Further, investments in T&D, by enabling the adoption of clean energy, can displace workers; a net-zero global economy in 2050 would reduce employment in fossil fuel supply and electricity generation by five million (39). To mitigate this risk investors, should integrate principles of a just transition into their due diligence. Locally displaced workers may be good candidates for training or retraining focused on distribution-related jobs, which will likely be particularly prevalent in rural regions. Investments could support these workers with financial assistance during this transition, with a focus especially on healthcare (particularly for workers exposed to the risks of fossil fuel extraction), education, and family care. Since electrical grids are deeply tied to state-run enterprises, investors can look especially to regulatory regimes that offer incentives for T&D enhancements that drive economic development, particularly in fossil fuel-dependent areas, and by financing new or improved infrastructure that targets particular communities of workers and consumers. IRIS+ users may also find the following Strategic Goals in the Quality Jobs theme relevant when considering impacts on workers: Improving Job Skills for the Future and Increasing Job Security and Stability for Workers in Precarious Employment.

Illustrative Investment

SparkMeter provides smart electricity meters, custom analytics, and grid management services for emerging market microgrid and distribution utilities. The company raised USD 12 million in Series A financing in August 2020, with the round led by Clean Energy Ventures and Breakthrough Energy Ventures alongside Goodwell Investments, in partnership with Alitheia Capital and Total Energy Ventures, among other investors (40). The equity capital allowed SparkMeter to launch a new Digital Solutions offering that aims to address low-level electricity access in grid-connected communities—that is, to fix ‘weak’ grids—by connecting smart grid data insights to the business operations of electricity distribution utilities (41). SparkMeter’s solution could mitigate more than 2.5 gigatons of CO2 emissions by 2050. SparkMeter has sold over 150,000 meters across 25 countries in Africa and Asia (42).

In October 2020, Dutch development bank FMO invested USD 5 million in minigrid developer Husk Power Systems, a next-generation distributed utility company that operates minigrids across Asia and Africa (43). This round followed USD 20 million in investment from Shell Technology Ventures, Swedish development finance institution Swedfund International, and ENGIE Rassembleurs d’Energies, the impact investment arm of ENGIE Group (44). Husk develops grid-compatible minigrids with smart metering systems that leverage hybrid solar–biomass gasification power plants to provide reliable, on-demand energy to households and businesses. The firm has set up more than 75 plants serving 15,000 households and businesses in India and Tanzania, helping to replace about 16,000 metric tons of CO2 annually (45). By 2022, the company aims to expand to 30 MW of power generation across 600 sites.

Energy Impact Partners, a collaborative fund backed by major utilities, made a strategic investment inOpus One Solutions, a smart-grid software company, in September 2016 (46). Opus One’s first external round, the investment provided growth capital to drive geographic expansion of its flagship GridOS® platform that enables utilities to manage existing infrastructure alongside grid modernization. GridOS® creates a ‘digital twin’ of the utility’s network to enable system modeling, technical analysis, EV capacity analysis, economic scheduling, project costing, power-flow management, scenario analysis, and more (47). This, in turn, allows utilities to increase the adoption and management of distributed renewable generation, energy storage, microgrids, and electric vehicle charging networks. Opus One now serves 11 electric utility customers, with which it has worked to better integrate distributed energy resources and set up transactive energy marketplaces.

Draw on Evidence

This mapped evidence shows what outcomes and impacts this strategy can have, based on academic and field research.

The climate mitigation opportunity behind global power transmission and distribution

Surana, K., Jordaan, S.M. The climate mitigation opportunity behind global power transmission and distribution. Nat. Clim. Chang. 9, 660–665 (2019).

Accelerating the Low Carbon Energy Transition

Victor, D.G., Geels, F.W. and Sharpe, S., 2019 Accelerating the Low Carbon Transition: The Case for Stronger, More Targeted and Coordinated International Action

The impact of battery energy storage for renewable energy power grids in Australia

Keck, F., Lenzen, M., Vassallo, A., & Li, M. (2019). The impact of battery energy storage for renewable energy power grids in Australia. Energy, 173, 647-657.

Energy storage deployment and innovation for the clean energy transition

Kittner, N., Lill, F., & Kammen, D. M. (2017). Energy storage deployment and innovation for the clean energy transition. Nature Energy, 2(9), 1-6.

Typology of future clean energy communities: An exploratory structure, opportunities, and challenges

Gui, E. M., & MacGill, I. (2018). Typology of future clean energy communities: An exploratory structure, opportunities, and challenges. Energy research & social science, 35, 94-107

The path towards sustainable energy

Chu, S., Cui, Y., & Liu, N. (2017). The path towards sustainable energy. Nature materials, 16(1), 16-22.

Reducing Carbon Dioxide Emissions from Electricity Sector Using Smart Electric Grid Applications

Lamiaa Abdallah, Tarek El-Shennawy, “Reducing Carbon Dioxide Emissions from Electricity Sector Using Smart Electric Grid Applications”, Journal of Engineering, vol 2013, (2013)


Gowrishankar, V., & Levin, A. (2017). America’s Clean Energy Frontier: The Pathway to a Safer Climate Future. Natural Resource Defense Council Report, 16-06.

Each resource is assigned a rating of rigor according to the NESTA Standards of Evidence.

Define Metrics

Core Metrics

This starter set of core metrics — chosen from the IRIS catalog with the input of impact investors who work in this area — indicate performance toward objectives within this strategy. They can help with setting targets, tracking performance, and managing toward success.

Interested in providing feedback on these IRIS metrics in the forthcoming public comment period? Request an invitation here and include “Clean Energy theme” in the box.

Additional Metrics

While the above core metrics provide a starter set of measurements that can show outcomes of a portfolio targeted toward this goal, the additional metrics below — or others from the IRIS catalog — can provide more nuance and depth to understanding your impact.