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New England’s last coal plants will close by 2028

Merrimack Station in Bow, NH
Annie Ropeik
Merrimack Station in Bow, NH

This story was updated at 4:30 p.m. on March 28.

Merrimack Station, which is New England’s last running coal plant, will stop operating by 2028.

Granite Shore Power announced the closure of the Bow, N.H. plant as part of a settlement agreement signed Wednesday, resolving litigation brought by the Conservation Law Foundation and the Sierra Club. Granite Shore Power will commit to shutting down coal-fired generators at the Schiller Station in Portsmouth, N.H. by 2025. Currently, that plant has the capability to burn coal but hasn’t used its coal-fired generation since 2020.

Merrimack Station is a peaker plant, used to provide power on the region’s hottest or coldest days. In New England, coal makes up less than one percent of the region’s energy.

Granite Shore Power says the two plants will become “renewable energy parks.” Schiller Station is set to host a battery storage system that can provide power to the grid when there’s a lot of demand, and could serve as storage for offshore wind power.

Merrimack Station is expected to host about 100 megawatts of solar, along with more battery storage. As of 2023, New Hampshire has about 260 megawatts of solar power in total.

“I think we're undertaking a bold step forward and making good on a promise to transition our coal fired plants to clean energy facilities,” said Jim Andrews, the president and CEO of Granite Shore Power. “I think these facilities will pave the way for New Hampshire to be a leader in the clean energy economy.”

Andrews said he’d been planning to transition the plants away from coal-fired generation since Granite Shore Power bought them in 2018.

For Tom Irwin, a Vice President at the Conservation Law Foundation, the company’s commitment to stop burning coal symbolized a win for advocates. He said the settlement agreement was a result of “hard-fought litigation.”

“It's a big moment. Coal is the dirtiest form of energy that we have. It’s essential to address the climate crisis that we get off fossil fuels and make that transition to a clean energy economy,” he said.

Catherine Corkery, the head of New Hampshire’s Sierra Club chapter, said she was excited about the closure of the plants – not only for the environment, but also for public health.

“It remained a very significant health risk,” she said. She says it’s an accomplishment for public health that coal pollution in the state is going away.

Advocates have called for the closure of Merrimack Station for years, with dozens of people being arrested while protesting Granite Shore Power’s use of coal in the years since 2019.

“I think that our direct action has played a role, has made it more uncomfortable for the plant to keep engaging in business as usual. We really brought it into the public conversation more that this plant is still there and still doing what it does both environmentally and to the climate,” said Kendra Ford, an organizer with 350 New Hampshire and No Coal No Gas, which have been focused on closing Merrimack Station.

Ford said the groups would be open to working with Granite Shore Power to make the transition happen.

No Coal No Gas has previously called on the owners of the plant not to transition to gas, like many other plants in the US have done. Andrews said he had no current plans to use gas at the plants, but the company intends to “optimize the grid for reliability,” which he said would require a “balanced mix of generation.”

The plant has faced regulatory scrutiny in the past year. New Hampshire state regulators have ordered the plant to comply with state emissions regulations by the end of this month. Merrimack hasn’t been able to test its emissions since February 2023, when it exceeded one emissions limit by about 70%, according to state regulators. As of February 2024, it had operated for more than 500 hours in violation of its permit.

Read more about the plant’s emissions compliance here

Merrimack Station has tried on four separate occasions to retake the emissions test, but has canceled each attempt due to issues including boiler leaks and an electrical breaker issue.

Andrews said the plant would demonstrate to state officials that they were operating in compliance with their permit, and continue meeting their obligations to provide power to the regional grid. The plant has an obligation to provide power to New England through 2026, but may extend that through 2027.

He also said that the company intends to keep people who work at Merrimack Station employed as the plant transitions.

“We believe these projects will actually enhance jobs,” he said. “The professionals we have through the IBEW and their membership are very skilled and dedicated professionals, electricians and operators that are exactly the jobs that are needed for this transition at hand.”

According to the Sierra Club, the closure of the Merrimack and Schiller plants will make New Hampshire the 16th state to eliminate coal. New England will be the second U.S. region to transition away from coal, after the Pacific Northwest.

Updated: March 28, 2024 at 4:33 PM EDT
An earlier version of this story included that Merrimack Station was the largest single source of pollution in New Hampshire. While that is true based on EPA data from the last decade, in recent years Merrimack Station’s emissions have been lower than some other sites in New Hampshire.
Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.