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Activists gather near Bow’s coal plant, calling for its owners to transition to clean energy

The Merrimack Generating Station sits on the banks of the Merrimack River. A small group of boaters can be seen paddling in the river.
Mara Hoplamazian
The Merrimack Generation Station sits on the banks of the Merrimack River. A small group of boaters can be seen paddling in the river, Oct. 29, 2023.

Climate change activists gathered near New England’s last running coal power plant in Bow on Sunday to call for its owners to stop burning fossil fuels and transform the plant into a renewable energy facility.

Eight people were arrested after paddling canoes and kayaks in the Merrimack River near the plant.

In a statement, the Bow Police Department said the protesters were arrested for criminal trespassing after being seen out of their boats on the property of the coal plant.

The climate advocacy group 350 New Hampshire said in a statement that activists were taken out of their boats in the middle of the river by police officers.

“This police response to nonviolent and lawful activity represents a severe violation of activists’ right to free speech and assembly. It shows that the State of New Hampshire is more concerned with protecting polluting companies from uncomfortable attention and scrutiny than supporting the needs of the local community,” the statement said.

One of the protesters arrested, Olivia Chatfield, said she did not touch land or get out of her boat, and said the arrests were surprising, given that protesters were on the river and had gotten in at a public boat launch.

Chatfield said activists were calling on the plant’s owners to “embrace the opportunity” afforded by its loss of payments from the organization that operates New England’s energy grid in a yearly auction designed to pay generators to provide electricity in future years.

Earlier this year, the plant failed to win that funding for the first time, and won’t have that source of money for its coal-fired power generation starting in 2026.

“There are many conversations happening around the future of the plant,” said Emma Shapiro-Weiss, one of the executive directors of the advocacy group 350 New Hampshire. “We really want to uplift this moment and hope that the owners of the plant and anyone that has decision making power in the future of the plant will choose solar, choose renewable energy, choose a future that won't hurt the community of Bow, the surrounding towns, and the other communities that are impacted when those fossil fuels travel here.”

Law enforcement officers blocked off part of River Road in Bow for some of Sunday morning.

Rebecca Beaulieu, a spokesperson for the climate advocacy group 350 New Hampshire, said the group of activists had planned to hold part of their demonstration on River Road near the coal plant, but did not because of the police presence.

Advocates with the No Coal No Gas campaign have been calling for the closure of Bow’s coal plant for years through a variety of protests, including hosting a “retirement party” in June. Dozens were arrested at the plant in 2019, and 18 were arrested in 2021. Activists have also blocked trains full of coal headed for the plant multiple times.

“We're going to keep showing up. We're going to keep doing things that make society really uncomfortable, because the crisis is so urgent that we have to do things that seem uncomfortable or that push the edges a fair amount because the planet's life depends on it,” said Kendra Ford, an organizer with 350 New Hampshire. “That's really why we're here to show up and say the harm has to stop. The burning of fossil fuels has to stop immediately.”

As they’ve pushed for the closure of the coal plant, advocacy groups have also called for the company that owns it, Granite Shore Power, not to turn it into a gas plant, which has happened at more than 100 other coal plants in the U.S.

“The climate crisis is happening right now and transitioning to gas is part of perpetuating this crisis,” Shapiro-Weiss said. “Transitioning to renewable energy is a way to mitigate some of the harm that will be caused by the climate crisis. And so for us, enough is enough. We have to make a transition.”

The coal plant helps power the grid during times when people have a high demand for electricity, like on very hot or very cold days. Coal accounts for about 0.3% of New England’s power generation.

Coal is one of the most carbon-emitting fossil fuels. Those emissions can harm human health, and are fueling climate change. According to data from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Merrimack Station emitted 363,457 tons of carbon dioxide in 2022.

Mara Hoplamazian reports on climate change, energy, and the environment for NHPR.
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