Port Augusta’s long-serving mayor, Nancy Joy Baluch AM, died in hospital on Tuesday night, after a long battle with cancer.
Baluch, who would have turned 80 on Wednesday, was mayor of the South Australian city for 29 years over three separate terms – a large part of which she spent fighting to have the town’s polluting coal-fired power stations replaced with a concentrating solar thermal plant.
Baluch’s crusade to clean up Port Augusta’s power supply was largely driven by her family’s own experiences with illnesses connected to pollution from the local coal power plant: Her son, Emil, was born a chronic asthmatic and was not expected to live past the age of 14; and her husband of 43 years, Teofil, died 16 years ago from lung cancer – he had never smoked but had worked in the Port Augusta power stations.
The battle started back in 1970, when a local newspaper editorial claimed that, despite strong community concerns about pollution, most people in Port Augusta would be happy with the construction of a new coal-fired power plant. Baluch wrote a stinging letter to the editor in response – a letter that struck a chord in the community, and led to her being elected to the city council.
“Health was really being damaged as a result of the fly ash that was being poured out over Port Augusta,” she said in an interview with ABC’s 7.30 Report last November. “There would not have been a family then [in the early 70s] that was not touched” by health problems related to the local coal plant, she said.
Last May – as part of the Repower Port Augusta alliance that includes the council, small business groups, Beyond Zero Emissions, 100% Renewables and other health and environmental organisations – Baluch continued her fight, speaking at a forum to brief South Australia’s state government on the benefits of replacing Port Augusta’s coal-fired power stations with concentrating solar thermal power.
Baluch said then that the city had been treated badly by both state and federal governments, but that the best was yet to come: “No other city in Australia has more to gain than Port Augusta,” she told the forum. “The piercing hot sun will go from obstacle to energy.”
“My term finishes in 2014,” Baluch said in her November interview with 7.30 Report, “and I would hope that within that time, that I will live to see solar thermal energy power stations, not only in Part Augusta, but put in place all around the nation.”
Sadly – and despite huge community and broader public support for the plan, as well as an encouraging level of interest from Alinta Energy, the current owner of the mothballed and “uneconomic” Playford and Northern brown coal power generators – Baluch died without seeing her dream realised.
As we reported earlier this month, Alinta is applying to the Australian Renewable Energy Agency for funds to conduct a detailed feasibility study – and to help it decide if its better going for a stand-alone CST plant with storage, or a hybrid facility.
An earlier study found that CST was viable, but it needed support to bridge the gap between “first of its kind” operating costs – estimated at more than $200/MWh – compared with what it could possibly earn on market (around $100/MWh).
David Shearman – honorary secretary of Doctors for the Environment Australia, a member of the Repower Alliance – told RenewEeconomy on Wednesday that Joy Baluch would be remembered as a fighter, who “had the ability to cut through the political bull,” with quotes such as “God is not going to send us a bill for solar energy, but the gas industry will” – a statement she made in response to a proposal to switch Port Augusta from coal power to gas.
“Many community organisations, including Doctors for the Environment Australia, will continue to fight for a Joy Baluch solar thermal with storage power station which will bring jobs, technological innovation and clean air to a deprived part of Australia,” Shearman said. “For those who believe in the future, all obstacles can be overcome, even the intransigent politicians.”
Certainly, Baluch was a believer: “I did my best because I believe in this city, and we haven’t reached our pinnacle yet” she said. “The good things are still to come.”