KWADUKUZA, South Africa—A Zulu crowd's ululations welcomed Jacob Zuma, president of the Republic of South Africa, back to KwaZulu–Natal, his home province. He had come to tell them of his commitment to bring them, and the rest of the nation, better access to energy—as well as to announce the distribution of solar-powered hot water heaters and LED lighting systems as well as clean-burning cookstoves.

"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 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.

Africa south of the Sahara is one of the places where energy poverty is greatest. Seventy percent of all households in the vast region lack modern energy technologies, whether electricity or fuels other than wood and dung for cooking fires. Even in the region's richest country—South Africa—roughly 30 percent of households lack access to electricity.

To help extend electricity and other energy services as well as cut down on greenhouse gas emissions from existing electricity producers, Zuma's government launched a renewable energy initiative during the recent climate change conference in Durban. With the help of the U.N. and other international donors, South Africa will develop more wind and solar power. Given South Africa's abundant coal and heavy reliance on the most polluting fossil fuel for modern energy services, the idea is to harness equally abundant sunshine and wind to diversify energy supplies enough to meet the country's commitment under the 2009 Copenhagen Accord to reduce emissions 34 percent by the end of this decade.

In that, South Africa hopes to mimic other African nations that started down this road to renewables earlier, such as Kenya. With the help of the UNDP and U.N. Environmental Programme (UNEP), that East African nation—where only 18 percent of households have access to electricity today—is developing its renewable resources, such as geothermal power in the geologically active Rift Valley, wind farms and solar-powered battery systems in remote villages. "Kenya is on track with investments brought in to produce all its electricity from renewable sources by 2020," Orr says.

But the simple truth is: if the most affluent country in sub-Saharan Africa cannot boost its use of renewables while also extending modern energy access to those who still lack it, what hope do much poorer countries have? "The intervention announced today will ease energy poverty," Zuma said of the U.N.-backed clean energy program, which also saw 500 homes outfitted with solar hot water heaters and 200 homes given LED home lighting systems powered by solar photovoltaics. "Let us change, instead of burning, making more smoke."

That, of course, is easier said than done, particularly when it comes to cooking.

The power to cook
Netherlands-based Philips's smokelessn cookstove looks like it is fashioned from a metal pail that gleams atop a black plastic saucer, albeit a pail with a roaring fire inside it. Tongues of flame lick the top of the combustion chamber where twigs are added or a pot rests—but no smoke wafts out. Wood, dung—the stove can burn "pretty much any biomass," as a suited Philips executive stoking it in KwaDukuza notes during my visit the city formerly known as Stanger. The key to the new cookstoves is gasification—the stove gasifies the biomass of whatever type with heat before burning it. Traditional cookstoves burn the biomass in the pail—and emit clouds of sickening soot in the process. Even worse, most households simply employ an open fire.

But with this new cookstove, any ash settles to the bottom rather than wafting out as smoke. The saucer beneath conceals the stove's secret weapon: a battery-powered electric fan.

Like many developing countries, much of South Africa smells of smoke. The open flame of indoor cooking adds the taste of fire to home-cooked meals for roughly three billion people around the world—as well as killing more than 2.5 million people prematurely via soot, also known as black carbon, inhalation, according to the World Health Organization. Others simply suffer from chronic lung ailments; the soot that escapes into the atmosphere from all these cooking fires is also helping to cook the planet.

The solution has been obvious for decades: cleaner cooking facilities—whether advanced cookstoves, biogas flowing from tanks where microbes digest sewage and trash, or other modern alternatives. But the mismatch between the care or skill needed to tend cookstoves or biodigesters and the daily lives of those who would use them have doomed most initiatives to establish such devices in homes. For example, the technology for solar cookstoves works but the stoves do not function after sunset, when the evening meal is prepared in many countries. Or the price of more advanced stoves, such as those that burn biofuel instead of wood or dung, rapidly outstrip such households' ability to pay.

That hasn't stopped ongoing efforts, such as the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves from the U.S. State Department, which hopes to distribute cookstoves to 100 million households by 2020 (although the design has yet to be decided). Thirty households in KwaDukuza received Philips's stoves as part of the event with President Zuma, and 170 more households got them in the surrounding iLembe district.

The Dutch multinational may also build a factory in the nearby country of Lesotho to produce 300,000 such smokeless cookstoves a year, with funding help from UNIDO. Doing so may help to solve the cost problem for South Africa and other neighboring countries.

The new stoves also cut soot emissions by 90 percent, according to Philips, although it requires electricity to do so. A fan blows air into the combustion chamber, enabling more complete burning that eliminates smoke, but at the cost of requiring a rechargeable battery to power it—and thus the need for an electricity source.

Night light
A satellite photo of Earth during the nighttime reveals large swaths of black across much of the African continent whereas tendrils of light create glowing webs that connect cities and communities in North America or Europe. To light the night, countries such as South Africa need to generate electricity for modern lights to replace kerosene lamps and paraffin.

That is where LED solar lighting systems can play a key role. Such systems, which combine the efficiency of a light-emitting diode with electricity derived from sunlight and stored for the night in small batteries, can turn on the lights in rural households. In addition to avoiding the expense of running lines to conduct electricity to these homes across Africa, such solar-powered solutions would bring modern energy services to the poor without contributing to the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change.

The hurdle here is simple: cost. Every element of such a system—LEDs, solar panels and batteries—are too expensive for such households to afford on their own. Many people therefore pay (at higher costs per unit of energy) for small increments of kerosene for lamps or buy candles and recharge their now ubiquitous mobile phones from the grid where it is available. U.N. funding helped clear that financial hurdle for the 200 iLembe District households that received such systems.

"The numbers are not going to impress anyone," says Francois d'Adesky, UNIDO's interim representative in South Africa. But the project may be extended to all of KwaZulu–Natal, then all of South Africa, if it proves successful here, because it might then garner World Bank funding. But there is not enough money currently to extend the program to the hundreds of millions more in the rest of Africa and Asia who also lack access to electricity and such lighting—a problem the U.N. declaration of a push for sustainable energy for all aims to solve.

At the same time, there is the problem of cleaning existing electricity sources for those who do enjoy a grid connection. Although Durban's metropolitan electric utility has a wind turbine spinning briskly in the sea breeze blowing over its roof, grid power in South Africa means coal power (as does much of the diesel fuel for trucks and jet fuel for planes)—the dirtiest fossil fuel—and all too often used for things like electrified security fences around homes. Such power is not precluded as part of the new U.N. initiative, although the goal is to ensure that such energy is used for economic development and that environmental consequences, including climate change, "can be managed as best we can," Orr says. "We're not trying to create utopia in 20 years. We will work with the existing [energy] mix and try to move it in a positive direction."

Zuma's rally provides an example: a tall smiling puppet woman with a witch's shoes, striped stockings and a red-brimmed hat with smoke coming out from the top known as Mrs. Coal calls on her equally tall friend—a floppy, green, walking wind-turbine puppet known as Mr. Wind—for help. And for those not lucky enough to be connected to the grid that Mrs. Coal and Mr. Wind can combine to power, the LEDs and the photovoltaic panels that turn sunlight into electricity to power them keep getting cheaper.

Health and education
There is another use for solar power of course—heat. Hence the 19 clinics and two schools getting solar hot water heaters courtesy of UNIDO in iLembe District. The most basic reason to want modern energy services for all—as the U.N. proclaims—is human health.

More than a million children in Africa and Asia die from diarrheal diseases each year, according to the World Health Organization, including hundreds even in relatively prosperous South Africa. The problem is a lack of hygiene.

Something as simple as hot water allows much better hygiene as well as offering hot meals for the poorest students, notes UNIDO's Nokwazi Moyo. "Soft hands, soft hands," the beaming children of Aldinville Senior Primary School in the iLembe District shout out as I tour the grounds. My hands are clean, too, thanks to access to soap and hot water, and that's something the sun can now provide to these children as well, cutting the risk of spreading infection for them and for workers at the 19 local health clinics similarly outfitted. "Kids now have chance to wash hands before lunch, which is hygienic," says Mikhail Evstafyev, a UNIDO spokesman. "It's the same for the clinic."

The generic hot water heaters the project uses are assembled in South Africa from parts made in China, according to Moyo, but so far have not seen wide uptake in the sunny country. Wealthier South Africans' homes are more likely to sport satellite dishes than photovoltaic panels or solar hot water heaters, although the government has established incentives as part of its new renewable energy initiatives.

Each heater can hold as much as 400 liters of hot water, enough for hand-washing and hot meals on even a cloudy day when the sunlight is not strong. And then there's harnessing the sunlight for use at night with the LED solar home-lighting systems handed out to 200 local households.

The vision is to eventually install solar hot water heaters and LED solar home-lighting systems in the same community, as is being done throughout iLembe District. With lights, the Aldinville students can study at night or their mothers can supplement income with such businesses as mobile phone charging from the photovoltaic panels. Multiple forms of new economic development become possible.

That opportunity will be vital because simply providing modern energy—in whatever form—to the poor is not a panacea. "Energy services are often not affordable for the rural and urban poor and, on their own, have little impact," said Martin Krause, leader of UNDP's Asia–Pacific regional climate, environment and energy team, in a statement releasing a report calling for an "Energy Plus" approach, which pairs the delivery of modern energy with measures to generate cash income. "The poor need support to generate income so that energy becomes affordable."

It's not just the poor. For any such sustainable energy efforts to thrive, money will be needed—along with a better understanding of specific communities' energy needs. For example, it may not make sense to build wind farms in Kenya given the fact that most households lack any connection to the electric grid. It may make more sense to set up village-size grids connected to cheap solar panels or mini-hydropower technologies. And cleaner cookstoves may employ technology improvements, but at the hazard of quickly being tossed aside when they cannot be maintained locally at low cost. Finding new sources for the money to make this possible—ideas range from carbon credits to microfinance—remain a key focus of international climate negotiations like those just held in Durban as well as for the Year of Sustainable Energy for All.

Nevertheless, the potential benefits of bringing modern energy to the rest of the world—health improvements, economic development and even environmental remediation—cannot be overlooked. "What a difference bringing energy to our homes means," UNDP Administrator Clark noted at the Zuma rally. "Something like this [project] brings hope and light and heat to not only homes here but right across this great continent of Africa."