When I lived in Malaysia I learned that the residential electricity rates were very low for the low levels of use and climbed fairly rapidly as you used a lot of electricity (say running your air conditioner a lot). I think this is a very good idea (especially for the not yet rich countries). In rich countries even most of the “poor” have high use of electricity and it isn’t a huge economic hardship to pay the costs.
Effectively the rich end up subsidizing the low rates for the poor, which is a very sensible setup it seems to me. The market functions fairly well even though it is distorted a bit to let the poor (or anyone that uses very little electricity) to pay low rates.
In a country like Malaysia as people become rich they may well decide to use a great deal of electricity for air conditioning (it is in the tropics). But their ancestors didn’t have that luxury and having that be costly seems sensible to me. Allowing the poor to have access to cheap electricity is a very good thing with many positive externalities. And subsidizing the rate seems to be a good idea to me.
Often you get bad distortions in how markets work when you try to use things like subsidies (this post is expanded from a comment I made on Reddit discussing massive bad investments created by free electricity from the power company to city governments – including free electricity to their profit making enterprises, such as ice rinks in Puerto Rico).
With the model of low residential rates for low usage you encourage people to use less electricity but you allow everyone to have access at a low cost (which is important in poor or medium income countries). And as people use more they have to pay higher rates (per kwh) and those rates allow the power company to make a profit and fund expansion. Often in developing countries the power company will be semi-private so the government is involved in providing capital and sharing in profits (as well as stockholders).
The USA mainly uses central air conditioning everywhere. In Malaysia, and most of the world actually, normally they just have AC units in some of the rooms. In poor houses they may well have none. In middle class houses they may have a one or a couple rooms with AC units.
Even in luxury condos (and houses) they will have some rooms without AC at all. I never saw a condo or house with AC for the kitchen or bathrooms. The design was definitely setup to use AC in fairly minimal ways. The hallways, stairways etc. for the “interior” of the high rise condos were also not air conditioned (they were open to the outside to get good air flow). Of course as more people become rich there is more and more use of AC.
Related: Traveling for Health Care – Expectations – Looking at the Malaysian Economy (2013) – Pursuing a Growing Economy While Avoiding the Pitfalls That Befall to Many Middle Income Countries – Singapore and Iskandar Malaysia – Looking at GDP Growth Per Capita for Selected Countries from 1970 to 2010 – Malaysian Economy Continues to Expand, Budget Deficits Remain High (2012) – Iskandar Malaysia Housing Real Estate Investment Considerations (2011)