<i>By Scientific American</i>

"One of South Africa's major challenges in poor and rural areas is access to energy," Zuma told his constituents at this rally last month, standing on stage with Helen Clark, administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and Kandeh Yumkella, director general of the U.N. Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), who had helped pay for the modern energy devices installed in iLembe District homes, health clinics and schools. "People have to burn wood and coal to get some form of heat but with [http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=could-public-health-benefits-make-combating-climate-change-free|soot that produces tuberculosis and asthma]."

And then, as if staged to illustrate the urgency of the need, the tent on the soccer field went dark—the diesel generators powering the lights had stopped.

View a slide show of efforts to alleviate energy poverty in South Africa.

South Africa is hardly the only country launching efforts to redress a lack of access to modern energy, such as electricity. The U.N. has declared 2012 the "year of sustainable energy for all," which in practice means that Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is starting a concerted effort to extend universal access to "modern energy services" to everyone on the planet by 2030, including the more than a billion people who have no electricity.

On January 16, in a speech to launch the initiative at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, Moon declared, "It is neither just nor sustainable that one person in five lacks access to modern electricity. It is not acceptable that three billion people have to rely on wood, coal, charcoal or animal waste for cooking and heating"—forms of energy that are highly polluting and pose health risks. Recalling how electricity transformed his own young life in South Korea decades ago, he said, "We need to turn on the lights for all households."

"Energy is central to everything we are trying to achieve on the development side of the equation," says Robert Orr, U.N. assistant secretary general for strategic planning and policy coordination. "There are 1.3 billion people who don't have access to modern energy. If you hook them up to the most polluting, damaging forms of energy you are doing significant damage to the planet."

One of the U.N.'s first steps will be to craft an "agenda for action," not unlike the Millennium Development Goals, intended to set out measurable steps that would ensure that everyone gets access to modern energy, while also doubling rates of energy efficiency improvement in the developed world and doubling the share of energy derived from renewable sources globally. "With the developments in solar, wind and storage devices, such as batteries, there are a lot more options on the table for powering villages and households," Orr notes.