Farming has been in William Wyness’s family for generations. The 49-year-old was born on the farm he now runs in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, which is both located in the community where he went to school and near to Aberdeen University, where he studied.
“First and foremost, I’m a farmer who has very, very deep ties to this area,” he tells Spotlight.
But there is a problem facing Wyness and others like him. “There’s no money in farming,” he explains. “I don’t mean that there’s no living, there’s no quality of life – that’s not true at all – but there’s no slack, there’s no profit, there’s no money to be set aside that can be used for reinvestment. It’s very tight.”
The knock-on impact for the community is evident to him. The bus route he took to school used to serve 13 families with children, but now there are only two. Rural areas nearby are punctuated by shops and pubs that have closed and homes turned into short and holiday lets. “We needed an injection of something,” he says.
It was while he was working away from Aberdeenshire as a banker that Wyness saw the growing interest farmers had in renewables, particularly as the government was subsidising its growth through the feed-in tariff.
“Agriculture is always looking for something else. It’s always looking for another income stream,” he says. Putting his experience of finance together with his knowledge of agriculture, Wyness saw the potential for that much-needed investment in his home community. He was also at a crossroads in his life; would he stay in banking and finance, or was he going to return to his roots and focus on the family business?
“I decided to go down the road of coming home to concentrate on my own thing,” he says.
Around 40 per cent of farmers in the UK generate some form of renewable or low-carbon energy via, for example, solar, wind, farm by-products and energy crops like maize, says the National Farmers’ Union (NFU).
The energy they generate meets around 10 per cent of the UK’s energy needs, according to a 2019 report by the NFU. Farmers own or host around 1,200 solar farms with 70 per cent of the UK’s solar panels.
But Wyness’s plan to make a wind turbine a reality was a bigger challenge than he expected. The planning system was a major block, according to Wyness, with the system unable to handle the type of applications coming in for renewables and the sheer volume of them. People like Wyness, who want to put in a small number of turbines in a small area with minimal impact, are lumped in with large-scale onshore wind farms, he says. It was a confusing and costly process, with a lot of duplication.
There were a lot of complaints about his application, Wyness recalls. “The countryside is divided, because there were those who are against them and then there were those that really didn’t mind. And the resentment was a big problem,” he says.
Enercon, which supplied the turbine, installed it on his land. The income he makes “is dependent upon wind, but bearing in mind the massive upfront, development and running costs, income takes a long time to service the investment”, he says.
When asked about his role in the transition to a net zero economy, Wyness says: “I’d like to say that we’re doing our best.” With energy, he feels like they are managing to produce “a commodity that people want”.
Within his lifetime, Wyness has seen parts of Scotland, including Aberdeen, transformed by money from North Sea oil, which was still worth £3.1bn in taxes in 2020/2021. “We saw a lot of companies in Aberdeen, and certainly in my generation, where people have started out from very humble beginnings and have done very well for themselves,” he says.
But “getting involved in renewables is not for the faint-hearted,” he reflects. “It’s a lot of money, it’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of very unpleasant meetings with people.” Still, for Wyness and other farmers, generating energy on their land is a way of ensuring that agriculture, and by extension their communities, have a long-term future. “Bolting on” renewables provides farms with a steady and reliable income, enabling them to invest in the future of farming.
To keep it alive, the area needs homes, schools and health services, and underpinning that is a viable rural economy. “We’ve been producing energy for the last seven years, maybe,” says Wyness. “And we’re beginning to see the benefits of what we’ve done.”
This article is part of a series exploring the front line of the net zero transition. Read more here
This article originally appeared in an Energy and Climate Change Spotlight supplement published on 30 September 2022. Read the full issue here.