Death Of A Fighter

Joy Baluch died on Tuesday. The name may not mean anything to some readers. On the other hand some will have seen the tributes posted by climate activists, but still only know one part of her remarkable story, but very mixed, story.

Baluch was mayor of Port Augusta from 1981 until her death, aside from a two year break. Wikipedia thinks this is an Australian record, and who am I to gainsay them. That’s impressive for anyone, but having started out at a time when female mayors were rare it’s astonishing.

When refugees from eastern Europe started arriving in Australia after the second world war Baluch was outraged at the hostility they faced and generated a profile in her home city, and to some extent more widely, as a crusader on their behalf. She married Teofil, a Ukrainian survivor of Dachau and accelerated the process of Australian becoming a multicultural nation.

Her son suffered from sever asthma as a result of the coal fired power stations that polluted Port Augusta, and she campaigned for better health services, eventually becoming involved in local politics and mayor. She ran for the Liberal Party for the then Labor seat of Grey, with one senior Liberal figure saying that he wanted her to run because he wanted to see the look on Malcolm Fraser’s face when he tried to make her follow the party line and she wouldn’t. Party lines were not something Baluch was big on.

Baluch’s husband died of lung cancer in 1997. He was a non-smoker and she attributed it to working in the coal fired power station, contributing to her last claim to fame.

However, one should not airbrush history so before we get to that we need to acknowledge that not everything Baluch did was good. I’m not sure where she stood on Vietnamese refugees in the 70s, but when desperate people started arriving on Australia’s shores more recently her response could hardly have been more different to that 50 years before. Whether it was her age, the race of the people involved or a lack of understanding of the absence of queues to join in their home country, but Baluch spoke of the Afghans, Sri Lankans and Iraqis who have arrive in recent years in tones more vicious than even Pauline Hanson could manage.

Her last stand however, came as a champion of the campaign to repower Port Augusta. The coal fired power stations that have killed so many people in the town, and are of course contributing to the planet’s destruction, are nearing the end of their own lives. The question is what should replace them. The cheapest option is for a gas fired plant, but Baluch combined with climate activists to push a combination of wind and a solar thermal plant. As the first large scale solar thermal plant in Australia this will be more expensive, but it will avoid local pollution, consumption of scarce water resources and of course carbon dioxide emissions.

A Spanish solar thermal plant like the one proposed for Port Augusta

A Spanish solar thermal plant like the one proposed for Port Augusta

Partly as a result of Baluch’s leadership the population of Port Augusta is overwhelmingly behind the solar thermal option. The council ran a ballot between the two options. The fact that 97% of those who participated opted for solar is perhaps not surprising, but  around 40% of those eligible turning up to vote in a nonbinding ballot is remarkable.

Shakespeare had Mark Antony say, “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.” I don’t see any reason to believe that as a general rule. And in Buluch’s case I don’t anticipate her negative actions living on. For all her ferocity, the appalling treatment Australia is dishing out to asylum seekers is the product of larger forces than her. She might have greased the wheels a little, but it would have happened without her input – just as she assisted the acceptance of a previous generation of “reffos” but did not change the ultimate outcome.

When it comes to solar thermal however, her influence may live after her as much as the man of whom Antony was speaking. Port Augusta is the test case for the future of solar thermal in Australia. There could hardly be a location more perfectly suited to it, with the intense sunlight, the local infrastructure and the power stations on the way out. If we can’t get solar thermal up in Port Augusta it is hard to see it being built anywhere in Australia for a frighteningly long time.

On the other hand, if it can get built, and built successfully, it will be the foot in the door. If solar thermal can be competitive in Spain, which it seems it now is, it should have a real chance under the even brighter Australian sun, once the local expertise is established by building the first plant.

While it is possible that Australia can switch to a renewable electricity system without solar thermal, it will be much, much harder. The intermittency of photovoltaics and wind means we need something more flexible to support them, and we lack enough hydro in Australia to do the trick. I’ve got hopes for battery storage, but a significant solar thermal component, with 8-17 hours of molten salt storage would provide overnight power, killing the myth that only nuclear and fossil fuels can provide baseload power forever.

The fossil fuel industry has no illusions about what they are up against, and they’re fighting the Port Augusta solar thermal plant hard. But they may not have reckoned with a fighter like Baluch, and potentially with the impact her memory will have on the people of the town. What better way to honour a towering figure than to build a solar tower that will lead Australia into a bright future.

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About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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