On a freezing night in December, about a dozen climate activists stood on the train tracks in a wooded section of West Boylston, Mass. They huddled together, headlamps and flashlights pointing south towards an approaching coal train.

The light from the train’s headlights got brighter, and the horns blared louder and longer, but the activists stayed put. In past protests, the slow-moving train bound for New Hampshire had stopped after "scouts" a few miles ahead called the railroad's emergency dispatcher to report people on the tracks.

This time, the train gave no sign of slowing.

The activists finally ran off the tracks when the train was about 50 feet away. No one was hurt, and the train continued on to one of the region's last remaining coal-fired power plants: the Merrimack Generation Station in Bow, New Hampshire.

"They are willing to go to crazy lengths to deliver coal to this plant," said Lila Kohrman-Glaser of 350 New Hampshire, one of the people who stood on the tracks that night. "But we'll be back and we will keep up this campaign until we have effectively ended the use of coal in New England."

When you think about New England, coal probably isn't the first thing that comes to mind. But New England does burn it for electricity, albeit a very small amount, and only on days when electricity demand is exceptionally high.

According to ISO-NE, which manages the grid, just 1% of our electricity came from coal in 2018. But for those on the tracks, that's still too much. They want to kill coal once and for all.

Energy Security And Insecurity 

For decades, coal and oil were the dominant fuel sources powering the nation's electricity grid.

"New England relied on coal like much of the country," said Dan Dolan of the New England Power Generators Association, the group that represents companies that make electricity and sell it to the grid.

Cheap and easy to transport, coal was seen as a relatively affordable resource to drive electrification in regions like New England, which had to import sources of energy.

"I like to say, the last time New England was energy independent was the late 1890s when Nantucket was the whaling capital of the world," Dolan said.

Domestic coal production increased steadily in the mid-1970s, after global oil embargoes and shortages raised concerns about energy security, Dolan said. As a result, New England — like the rest of the country — began burning more coal. We probably would have used even more coal if not for the nuclear power plants like Pilgrim, Seabrook and Vermont Yankee that also came online at this time, Dolan said.

Over time, New England switched to oil and natural gas as their prices decreased. By 2000, oil and gas provided 37% of our electricity; 18% came from coal. In the mid-2000s, advances in fracking technology caused the price of natural gas to plummet, accelerating the shift in our mix of energy sources. In 2018, natural gas produced 49% of the region's electricity — oil produced 1.1%, and coal produced 1%.

Three coal-fired power plants remain in New England: The Merrimack and Schiller Stations in New Hampshire, and the Bridgeport Station in Connecticut. Because the Schiller Station rarely runs, and the Bridgeport Station will become a natural gas-fired plant in 2021, activists have focused their efforts on Merrimack.

'Peaker' Plants And Bridge Fuels

"There’s no reason we should be burning coal in New England in 2019," said Tim DeChristopher of the Climate Disobedience Center. "People have known about the deadly impacts of coal for decades. We've known that we need to stop burning coal to preserve a livable future from the threat of climate change."

Coal is one of the dirtiest sources of energy we have. Burning it releases mercury, sulfur dioxide, lead, cadmium and other heavy metals. Living near a plant increases your risk of chronic respiratory issues, cardiovascular problems and premature death.

And then there are the carbon dioxide emissions.

C02 from coal-fired power plants has historically been one of the leading causes of human-induced climate change. To date, coal plants still represent 38% of global electricity generation and show little sign of abating.

DeChristopher said New Englanders are using less energy, and therefore don't need coal. Not everyone agrees.

"These coal units have a critical role in the energy infrastructure in ISO-New England right now," said Jim Andrews, president of Granite Shore Power, the company that owns the Merrimack and Schiller stations in New Hampshire.

In New England, energy demand peaks on the coldest winter days and hottest summer afternoons. No one wants electricity price spikes or power shortages when this happens, so ISO-NE calls on "peaker" plants to fill the gap.

"And when that happens, the role we play is to be a cost-efficient resource to provide power," Andrews says.

During last week's cold snap, for example, Granite Shore Power turned on the Merrimack Station and coal suddenly accounted for 3% of the region's electricity generation.

"I certainly understand the protests. I mean, personally, and as an organization, we're very conscious of climate change and we're very supportive of renewable resources coming online," Andrews said. "But we also recognize there is a bridge that is needed."

That "bridge" is the fuel we’re going to use until we can power the grid affordably with carbon-free sources like solar and wind.

The New England energy market favors whatever fuel is cheapest, and right now, it’s cheaper to occasionally fire up old coal plants than it is to build new natural gas plants — especially if they might only operate a few days a year.

So while coal probably doesn't have much of a long-term future in New England, the fact that it can compete at all means it's playing a useful role in keeping energy prices low, Andrews said.

DeChristopher doesn't buy that argument.

"I think if it was just up to the market, then they wouldn't need tens of millions of dollars a year in subsidy payments," he said. "And the fact that they have always been able to externalize the real costs of burning coal, that's part of what distorts the market."

The Forward-Capacity Market And A Carbon Tax

What the activists call a subsidy is a payment system that keeps the heat on; it's called the forward capacity market.

Power plants in New England get paid for producing electricity, and by promising to be ready and available to produce electricity should demand spike. It’s sort of like when a company pays an employee for being on call — the employee gets paid a base fee regardless of whether they’re called in. The forward capacity market basically allows power plants to bid to be “on call.”

"And as part of that, the requirements are that they participate every single day in the electricity market. That doesn’t mean they’re going to run every day, but every single day they have to make their electricity available to the market operator," Dolan said. "That does create a scenario in which consumers see a facility that operates for only a handful of hours out of the year, but is still able to maintain its economic viability ... I don’t think that’s a subsidy, I think that’s a market at work."

Coal may be affordable now, Dolan said, but that's only because the market isn't accurately accounting for CO2 emissions. The fix, he says, is a carbon tax.

"So let's do that. Let's put that in the market, and from there, if coal can survive, I think that's OK, [though] I think that would be a big challenge," he said.

It’s possible that a carbon tax could kill coal in New England, but no state in New England has passed one yet. In the meantime, activists like DeChristopher and Kohrman-Glaser say they’ll keep trying to block coal trains until there aren’t any left traveling through the region.

This reports comes from the New England News Collaborative, eight public media companies including Rhode Island Public Radio, joining together to tell stories of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.