Rethinking Energy Sector Reforms in a Power Hungry World

Every country aspires to provide reliable, affordable, and sustainable electricity to its citizens. Yet during the past 25 years, some countries made huge strides, while others saw little progress. What accounts for this difference?

A new World Bank report—Rethinking Power Sector Reform in the Developing World—looks at the evidence on the ways in which developing countries have attempted to improve power sector performance and on what the outcomes have been.

Since 1990, many countries embarked on market-oriented power sector reforms that ranged from establishing independent regulators and privatizing parts of the power industry, to restructuring utilities and introducing competition. Each of these reforms has a story to tell.

Regulation: Regulation proved to be the most popular of the reforms, with about 70 percent of developing countries creating quasi-independent regulatory entities to oversee the task of setting prices and monitoring the quality of service. Although many countries enacted solid legal frameworks, the practice of regulation continues to lag far behind. For example, while almost all countries give the regulators legal authority on the critical issue of determining tariffs, this authority is routinely overruled by the governments in one out of three countries. While three out of four countries have adopted suitable regulations for quality-of-service, these regulations are only enforced in half of the cases.

Privatization: Thanks to the widespread adoption of Independent Power Projects, the private sector has—remarkably—contributed as much as 40 percent of new generation capacity in the developing world since 1990, even in low-income countries. However, the privatization of distribution utilities has proved much more challenging. Latin American markets drove an initial surge in the late 1990s, but there has been relatively little impetus to continue subsequently. Where distribution utilities were privatized, countries were much more likely to adhere to cost-recovery tariffs. Many privatized utilities also operate at high levels of efficiency; and their performance is matched by the better half of the public utilities. Irrespective of ownership, more efficient utilities have adopted better governance and management practices, including: transparent financial reporting, meritocratic staff selection, and modern IT systems.

Restructuring: Most developing countries continue to operate with vertically integrated national power utilities that operate as monopolies. Only one in five countries implemented both vertical and horizontal unbundling of utilities, separating out generation from transmission and transmission from distribution and creating multiple generation and distribution utilities. Restructuring is intended primarily as a stepping stone to deeper reforms, and countries that went no further tended not to see significant impacts. Indeed, restructuring of power systems that are very small and/or poorly governed—as in the case of many Sub-Saharan African countries—can actually be counter-productive by reducing the scale of operation and increasing its complexity.

Competition: Only one in five developing countries has been able to introduce a wholesale power market during the past 25 years, in which generators are free to sell power directly to a wide range of consumers. Most of these power markets are in Latin America and Eastern Europe. Such countries have reaped the benefits of more efficient allocation of generation resources, but they have typically needed to introduce more incentives to ensure adequate investment in new capacity. A demanding list of structural, financial, and regulatory preconditions for power markets prevents most other developing countries from following suit. Such a transition is rarely possible until power systems reach a size of around 3GW and a wholesale power turnover of around US$1 billion. For countries that are not yet ready, participating in a regional power market can bring many of the benefits of trade.

Reflecting on these experiences leads to conclusions that can inform future efforts to improve power sector performance. The main takeaways from the study are as follows.

Power is political: The implementation of market-oriented power sector reforms raises political challenges. Many countries announced reforms that did not subsequently go through, and some countries enacted reforms that later had to be reversed. In practice, electricity reforms proved to be most feasible in countries that already espoused a broader market ideology and in political systems based on the decentralization of power. Reform champions often played a crucial role in driving the change process, but broader stakeholder alignment proved to be equally important for reforms to be sustained in the longer term. For example, in the Dominican Republic, a far-reaching market-oriented reform was enacted in an unsupportive political environment and a turbulent macro-economic context that eventually led to the renationalization of the power utilities.

Starting conditions matter: Market-oriented reforms are complex and presuppose a power system that is already largely developed, adequately governed, and financially secured. Countries starting from this vantage point generally saw quite positive outcomes from power sector reform. But those that embarked on the process before these basic conditions were in place faced a much more difficult trajectory, with outcomes that often fell short of expectations. Thus, market-oriented power sector reform led to much better outcomes in relatively developed middle-income countries like Colombia, Peru, or the Philippines, than in more challenging environments such as Pakistan or the Indian State of Odisha. For example, in Peru, the power sector was fully restructured by 1994; private sector investment substantially increased in generation, transmission, and metropolitan area distribution networks, amounting to about $16 billion over 20 years. The creation of an effective sector regulator and wholesale power market institutions has driven the efficiency of the Peruvian power sector to best-practice levels and led to a significant reduction in the cost of energy.

One size does not fit all: Power sector reform is a means to an end. What ultimately matters are good power sector outcomes, and there may be different ways of getting there. Among the best-performing power sec­tors in the developing world are some that fully implemented market-oriented reforms, as well as others that retained a domi­nant and competent state-owned utility guided by strong policy mandates, combined with a more gradualist and targeted role for the private sector. This reality makes a case for greater plural­ism of approaches going forward. In Vietnam, for instance, the central policy focus was on achieving universal access to electricity and rapid expansion of generation capacity to achieve energy security in a fast-growing economy. These objectives were achieved through strong leadership of state-owned entities, complemented by gradual and selective adoption of market reforms and targeted private sector investment.

Goal posts have moved: It used to be enough to achieve energy security and fiscal sustainability, but countries now have more ambitious 21st century policy objectives, notably, reaching universal access plus decarbonizing electricity supply. Market reforms can be helpful in improving the overall efficiency and financial viability of the power sector, and in creating a better climate for investment. However, they cannot—in and of themselves—deliver on these social and environmental aspirations. Complementary policy measures are needed to direct and incentivize the specific investments that are needed. For example, in Morocco, an ambitious scale-up of renewable energy was achieved through the creation of a new institution parallel to the traditional utility, with a specific policy mandate to direct private investment toward the achievement of government policy goals.

Technology disrupts: Rapid innovation is transforming the institutional landscape through the combined effect of renewable energy, battery storage, and digitalized networks. What used to be a highly centralized network industry is increasingly contested by decentralized actors. These include new entrants and consumers who may have the ability to generate their own electricity and/or adjust their demand in response to market signals. How this ultimately reshapes power sector organization will depend on the extent to which regulators open up markets to new players and reconfigure incentives for incumbent utilities to adopt innovative technologies.

In sum, a nuanced picture emerges from the experiences of developing countries that have aimed to turnaround power sector performance in the past 25 years. Drawing on this wealth of historical evidence, and informed by emerging technological trends, this report offers a new frame of reference for power sector reform that is shaped by context, driven by outcomes, and informed by alternatives.

The complete report can also be accessed at

World Bank