COLUMN: Tireless Activism and the Latest Region to Go Coal-Free

With the End of the Coal Era, It Just Got Easier to Breathe in New England

By Ben Jealous

Jerry Curran has been organizing to retire the Merrimack Station coal power plant in Bow, New Hampshire for 17 years. He is one of many local activists who have brought inspiring tenacity and creativity to the fight to make New England coal-free.

Last week, that goal was realized. 

After lengthy negotiations with the Sierra Club, The Conservation Law Foundation, and the Environmental Protection Agency, Granite Shore Power announced it will retire Merrimack and Schiller Stations’ remaining coal units by 2028 and 2025 respectively. That means the end of the last coal power plants in New England, which will now join the Pacific Northwest as the second major region in the country to be free of one of the dirtiest energy sources known to humanity. 

I am personally elated. My father’s family has been in New England since 1624. I have family in New Hampshire now — the kind of outdoors enthusiasts who helped instill in me my own love of nature.


We never could have gotten to this point without years of activism calling attention to the harm caused by coal. In addition to the economics of clean energy, the incremental wins by activists along the way — including hard-won legislation and safeguards — are what ultimately made it impossible for the last coal plants to continue. 

Curran has examples to share: 

“Around 2008, New Hampshire ranked in the top four states in the country for childhood asthma rate. We worked with schools to encourage kids to make those paper dolls that link up and make a chain. They created 18,000 of them — representing the 18,000 children in New Hampshire living with asthma. We hung the chain of paper dolls across the statehouse in our grassroots lobbying to pass tougher pollution standards for coal plants.”

And about that same time period, activists recruited local hairdressers for an event at the state capital in which more than 100 legislators had hair samples taken to be tested for mercury. Most of the results were positive. No level of mercury poisoning is safe.

In 2008, the biggest single-point mercury polluter in the state was Merrimack Station.

Merrimack has also consistently been one of the state’s top polluting power plants, period. And it has continued spewing high levels of pollution even in its final years, when it operated only about 50 days a year. It is a so-called “peaker” plant, only supplying energy during times of peak demand for the power grid.

While Merrimack’s outsized pollution is a testament to the dangers of coal, it is also a very troubled plant. 

In February 2023, the New Hampshire Department of Environment Services found the coal plant’s particulate matter emissions exceeded EPA limits by 70 percent. Since then, it has operated more than 500 hours in violation of its permit, according to the state. 

Ben Jealous, executive director of the Sierra Club

But this new agreement with Granite Shore Power offers the chance for a drastic change in direction. Jim Andrews, Granite Shore’s CEO, said of Merrimack and Schiller, “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. I think these facilities will pave the way for New Hampshire to be a leader in the clean energy economy.”

Those words are refreshing. And we will hold Granite Shore Power to them.

Too much is at stake for us not to. 

In the last 14 years, communities across the country have mobilized to retire 381 coal plants. That has meant over 54,000 lives saved, 84,000 heart attacks prevented, and nearly 900,000 asthma attacks averted. Moving beyond coal means fewer lives lost to preventable illnesses.

We risk backtracking on this progress, however, if we replace coal plants with gas. The future is clean energy like wind, solar, and battery storage. Gas development, extraction, shipping, and burning all offer intolerable health risks for people. 

Moreover, transitioning to clean energy isn’t just the moral choice for our people and our environment; it is the smart one economically. 

While the closure of these New Hampshire coal plants may not immediately affect energy costs in New England, the long-term benefits of clean energy are undeniable. Fossil fuels like coal and gas create an unbearably volatile landscape for energy costs. That is a burden households should not have to bear.

Ben Jealous is the Executive Director of the Sierra Club and a Professor of Practice at the University of Pennsylvania.

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