by Robert Stewart
The region surrounding Groton has recently become a hotbed of climate activism as protesters from local, grass-roots organizations have blocked coal trains traveling through the rail- hub in Ayer to deliver tons of coal to a coal-fired electric generation plant in Bow, NH.
From early December 2019 to early January 2020, there have been five protests along the freight rail lines between Worcester and Ayer. With the exception of one incident, several coal trains have been stopped and dozens of protesters arrested.
The New Hampshire coal plant in question is a “peaking” plant that only operates when demand for electricity in Massachusetts and the region outstrips the normal demand that electric companies across the state have contracted for.
In New England that usually happens in January when it is very cold and sometimes in July when it is very hot. Groton Electric Department manager Kevin Kelly said he was aware of the protests and understood the climate message behind the protests. However, he added that the answer to reducing the “carbon footprint” in the state is more complicated than it appears.
Kelly said the current circumstances of electric generation in Massachusetts and the region makes the operation of the coal plant in New Hampshire a necessity. “That coal plant is needed,” Kelly said and especially so if natural gas supplies aren’t increased and also as the impact of closing the Pilgrim Nuclear plant in Plymouth will be felt in the coming year. Kelly also noted that the possibility exists that the Mystic Natural Gas plant just north of Boston might be closed which would create more pressure to keep the New Hampshire coal plant open and operating when needed.
The coal plant in Bow, NH that is located approximately half- way between Manchester and Concord, NH and is one of only three, large, coal-fired electric generating plants left in New England. Of the other two plants, one is scheduled to convert to natural gas and the other one, in Connecticut, is scheduled to close next year. That would leave the Bow, NH plant as the only large coal powered electric plant operating in New England. The 482-megawatt coal plant is owned by Granite Shore Power and was the site of a large demonstration last September where 67 people were arrested.
While coal-fired plants make up only one percent of electricity generated in New England, climate activists who staged the protests say coal is the dirtiest fuel source and the use of coal has negative impacts on the environment including climate change. The protesters who organized the train blockade in Harvard, Ayer, West Boylston and Worcester were from several grass-roots organizations including the Climate Disobedience Center, 350 Mass Action and 350 NH Action.
The most recent train blockade occurred in Harvard on Jan. 2 in the middle of the night. The train was traveling north from Worcester with approximately 10,000 tons of coal from West Virginia. Protesters had erected a scaffolding structure over the rail track in Harvard near Depot Rd. around 10:30 p.m.
The protesters had alerted the railroad that a blockade had been erected. With that notice, the train stopped some distance from the blockade while Harvard police, state police and rail police tried to negotiate with the protesters to leave the scaffolding. When that failed, police climbed the structure and brought the protesters down without resistance. Four people were arrested and had to appear in Clinton District Court. The train was delayed for nearly eight hours before it continued its journey to Bow, NH. Similar protests blockaded train tracks in Ayer, West Boylston and Worcester. In West Boylston, the train did not stop and protesters had to scramble to get out of the way of the train.
While protesters want to shut down the coal plant in Bow and reduce the “carbon footprint” of electric-generating plants in New England, GELD manager Kelly said the carbon footprint in New England has been declining steadily for the past 10 years. Kelly attributes that trend to the significant increase in the use of natural gas to fuel electric- generating plants. However, he noted that with the loss of the Pilgrim Nuclear Plant and the lack of action to bring more natural gas supply into New England, the region will see an increase in its carbon footprint in the next year or two.