TURBINES appear a few kilometres from Glenthompson, rising among paddocks stocked with fat lambs.
These modern windmills are a new feature of the local landscape.
On a day when grey, rain-filled clouds sweep through the area their white blades look particularly bright, each one’s rhythmic spinning commanding attention.
Late last month AGL began commissioning its 32-turbine Oaklands Hill wind farm, a project capable of producing 63 megawatts of power each year. Just four days later, Adrian and Helen Lyon began to notice a change.
The Lyons are wool producers whose home is about 1670 metres from one of the development’s turbines.
Both have reported a feeling of sustained pressure in their ears, a sensation that has disturbed their sleep.
The couple believe the problem is worst when the wind is blowing from the north, and say it disappears when the wind direction changes or they leave the 430-hectare property.
Mr Lyon said his initial worry when plans for the wind farm were unveiled in 2006 was the audible noise it could produce, adding that inaudible low-frequency noise had since become an equal concern.
“To me, and I’m pretty sure it will be for most people, if you expose yourself (to turbines) for quite some time and then go away, you will notice there is a difference,” he said.
“Exactly what we’re experiencing now, you don’t appreciate it, even after visiting Waubra.”
There are 15 turbines within about three kilometres of the Lyons’ home, though none on their land. They were invited to host generators but were concerned that doing so would restrict the number of trees they could plant.
The pair have not approached their GP to discuss the ear pressure complaint but are looking for a rental home within 50 kilometres of Glenthompson so Mr Lyon can continue running the farm.
“We’ve tried to seek answers and clarifications because if we’re being affected, other people are as well,” Mrs Lyon said.
“Some people may think that we’re just being whingers (but) we have a genuine concern for our own health and for the wellbeing that’s associated with wind farms.
“When you have people that could feel that they’re locked in, that their whole entity is signed up — their house and their business — they may feel that they don’t have places to go, and they may feel that they can’t speak out because they’re in these agreements.
“We’re an example of our home and our livelihood being affected, and impacts have begun.
“We are fortunate that we are able to speak out.”
The Waubra Foundation was formed last year to foster independent research into the health consequences of wind farms.
The organisation’s medical director, Sarah Laurie, said those living near turbines were increasingly dealing with a raft of complaints.
“I think there’s two reasons for that: one is that turbines are being placed closer to more homes, and the other issue is that the turbines are getting bigger,” she said.
“I believe, and so do other people working in the field, that it’s predominantly the low-frequency noise that’s impacting adversely on people’s health.”
Some argue it is anxiety over turbines that leads nearby residents to experience problems such as sleep deprivation, nausea, depression and headaches, a theory Dr Laurie disputes.
“My experience is that people hope — they desperately hope — that they’re going to not be affected,” she said.
“Nobody wants to have to leave their home.
“For some people (symptoms) start the minute the turbines go on, and it depends on the individual susceptibility, but it also depends on wind direction and it depends on topography.
“Anxiety is not the primary thing that’s driving this, because people are very clear that it only happens with certain wind directions.”
Dr Laurie said she routinely met residents who could identify wind direction and whether turbines were running without looking outside, such was the variation in their physical state.
Last month Planning Minister Matthew Guy approved amendment VC82, which included key parts of the Coalition’s pre-election wind farm policy.
Perhaps the most significant of these was a two-kilometre buffer between turbines and homes that will apply unless the developer receives written consent from the property owner.
The amendment also introduced no-go areas for wind farms in areas including land along the Great Ocean Road, and prevents projects being built within five kilometres of regional cities such as Warrnambool, Hamilton and Portland.
“I think (the two-kilometre setback) will help — there’s no doubt that (with) close proximity people’s symptoms are bad,” Dr Laurie said.
“We well know that the symptoms actually extend way beyond the two-kilometre mark.
“Low-frequency noise travels much further than the higher frequencies and it’s more penetrating, so as the turbines get higher and increase their power-generating capacity, what we’re going to see is people impacted over a greater distance.”
The Waubra Foundation has called for a 10-kilometre setback between turbines and homes, a figure that represents the furthest point at which residents near wind farms have reported problems.
It is also keen to see independent, peer-reviewed research on wind farms’ health effects completed in Australia as a matter of urgency.
The Lyons are adamant that those with an interest or stake in wind energy should visit their farm to gauge potential problems for themselves.
“(We want) to get people here when there is an acute problem, so that they know that there’s a problem.
“It’s no good doing tests if those tests aren’t covering what the problem is,” Mr Lyon said.
“I think we’ve got to try and get people here whether it’s in the house or down in the paddock. I haven’t worked out which one will affect people quicker.”
An AGL spokeswoman said pre-commissioning of turbines at Oaklands Hill began on August 19 and was slowly ramped up, with all generators available for commissioning on the evening of August 28.
“The commissioning process ensures that the turbines are operating within their design criteria and in accordance with the permit requirements,” she said.
“It involves testing of the turbines under normal operational conditions, assessing noise levels, electricity generation, testing of electrical and control components, reliability testing.”
The wind farm’s 32 turbines are expected to come online at some stage during the first quarter of next year.
The AGL spokeswoman said the company took all issues associated with its projects seriously and was investigating concerns about noise levels raised by the Lyons.
“The couple involved have been contacted directly by an AGL representative and a written acknowledgment of the complaint has also been provided,” she told The Standard yesterday.
“Post-construction noise compliance monitoring has already been planned and is scheduled to be commenced before the end of September 2011.
“The Department of Planning and Community Development and Southern Grampians Shire Council (have been) advised accordingly.”