On tiny King Island, you're never far from the sea.
Its location in the Bass Strait means the island's right in the middle of the Roaring Forties, and experiences wind speeds of about eight metres a second.
‘Anything over 10 [metres a second] becomes challenging, anything under 8 becomes challenging,' says David Mounter, the wind asset development manager with Hydro Tasmania. ‘It's probably the best wind resource in Australia.'
State-government owned Hydro Tasmania is Australia's biggest renewable energy generator. It wants to build 200 wind towers on King Island, 150 metres high at the blade tip. Hydro Tasmania says this $2 billion project alone could generate more than a quarter of the nation's target of 20 per cent renewable energy by 2020.
Mr Mounter says the turbines would be spaced across one fifth of King Island. ‘Some of the images we've produced so far look into [parts of] the island where you won't see any turbines,' he says. ‘And in other places out of the 200 you could see as many as 150. The island is flat but it's also got sand dunes and a lot of trees, so there are going to be places where you won't see many at all.'
This article represents part of a larger investigation into 'wind turbine syndrome' and King Island by reporter Sarah Dingle. You can listen to the full story on Background Briefing 8.05am, Sunday May 26.
But the company can't tell King Islanders exactly what the wind farm will look like because they haven't done a feasibility study. And in an unusual move, Hydro Tasmania has decided to ask the islanders to vote on whether the $18 million feasibility stage should go ahead.
Hydro Tasmania's business development manager, Miles Smith, says if the majority of the community don't support the wind farm, Hydro Tasmania may walk away. ‘I think our CEO's been quoted as saying 60% is what we're after,' he says.
That gamble could backfire. A month ago, wind farm opponents invited Dr Sarah Laurie to speak at a public meeting on King Island. The CEO of health promotion company the Waubra Foundation had a message for the King Island community.
‘Yes, wind turbines do cause adverse health effects, and increasingly the data and research is showing it's happening,' she told residents.
Dr Laurie and the Waubra Foundation say that the problem with wind farms is the low frequency sound emitted by the turbines. She says low frequency noise from wind turbines has a wide range of harmful effects on the body, including tinnitus, balance problems, dizziness, headaches, and what she says some residents near wind farms call ‘fuzzy thinking' or ‘not being able to think clearly'.
At the King Island meeting, Dr Laurie even drew a connection between wind turbines and autistic behaviour.
‘People with autism are known to be particularly noise sensitive,' she told residents. ‘There're certainly children with autism, and families with more than one child with autism, who have a really difficult time the turbines start operating.'
Local beef farmer Chris Porter says he found Dr Laurie's presentation ‘very reasonable and substantiated with evidence'. In his mind there's no doubt what King Island's decision should be.
‘If there is the remotest possibility health will be affected, property values affected or the community disrupted, I would think the most reasonable proposition is don't do it,' he says.
King Island cows Image: Some local farmers on King Island have found Dr Laurie's claims about wind farms persuasive, and may oppose a feasibility study by Hydro Tasmania. (Sarah Dingle)
Greg Barratt is Mayor of King Island. He's in favour of at least going to feasibility, although he says he's beginning to feel the growing pressure around the issue.
‘It's been suggested individual councillors could be sued if there are health issues emanating from this wind farm,' he says.
Retiree David Kerr says since Dr Laurie's visit, health is now one of the top community concerns about the wind farm proposal.
‘We've had [an] injection of mild hysteria creating a fear that didn't otherwise exist before the Waubra foundation became involved in our community,' Mr Kerr says.
Professor of Public health, Simon Chapman says there's no credible, peer reviewed scientific reports which prove that wind farms harm human health.
‘I've worked in schools of medicine now for the better part of 30 years and I don't think I've ever come across anything which has remotely the same number of problems associated with it,' Professor Chapman says. ‘There have been actually 17 reports that I've found-reviews I should say, not reports-which have looked at all the evidence to date when they were published, and none of those 17 reviews have said that wind turbines, and specifically infrasound, are harmful to health.'
Dr Laurie is currently the subject of a complaint to the National Health and Medical Research Council. The complaint alleges she's conducting research involving humans without oversight by an ethics committee, and she's having direct clinical contact with individuals, despite the fact that her medical registration as a doctor lapsed in 2006.
Dr Laurie denies that she's conducting research, but she told Background Briefing she does tell people who think they've been affected by wind turbines to keep health diaries and check their blood pressure, information which they've sometimes chosen to share with her.
‘[T]hey're doing it for their own benefit,' she told Background Briefing of the research. ‘For their self-care and for sharing with their own doctors.'
The National Health and Medical Research Council says it doesn't necessarily make public the outcome of any complaint investigation.
King Islanders will vote on whether the wind farm proposal should proceed to feasibility in early June. Hydro Tasmania says a questionnaire will be sent to King Island residents on June 7th and they will have 10 days to respond.