As N.H. coal-fired plants shift to solar, offshore wind beckons

Schiller Power Station in Newington.

Schiller Power Station in Newington.

Schiller Power Station in Newington, N.H. May 8, 2024.

Schiller Power Station in Newington, N.H. May 8, 2024. David Brooks—Monitor staff

This crane alongside Schiller Power Station in Newington lifted coal with an auger and can handle any similar dry goods. It also has a traditional crane for lifting  large objects. The river has a 35-foot depth at that point.

This crane alongside Schiller Power Station in Newington lifted coal with an auger and can handle any similar dry goods. It also has a traditional crane for lifting large objects. The river has a 35-foot depth at that point. David Brooks / Monitor staff

By DAVID BROOKS

Monitor staff

Published: 05-13-2024 9:32 AM

Modified: 05-13-2024 12:59 PM


New Hampshire’s two coal-fired power plants in Bow and Portsmouth look similar to the passer-by with their aging industrial buildings, rail lines and smokestacks. But as both places prepare to transition from burning coal to hosting fleets of batteries and solar panels, there’s one big difference: The waterway on which they sit.

Merrimack Station in Bow was built alongside the Merrimack River, whose water is useful for cooling but not for transport because dams in Manchester and in Lowell and Lawrence, Mass., block boats from coming upstream.

Schiller Station, however, is on the Piscataqua River, a tidal river open to the ocean. The owner of both sites, Granite Shore Power, says this gives Schiller great value in the field of offshore wind power.

Before that, Schiller will become a force in the new and growing energy field of utility-scale batteries.

The plan from Granite Shore Power calls for the current pile of coal to be replaced by the state’s biggest battery array, capable of storing and releasing up to 150 megawatts of electricity for as much as two hours to help stabilize the grid and maximize benefit from variable renewables. The array could be running in as little as two years, depending mostly on regulatory issues.

Plans for Merrimack Station in Bow, which sits on 343 acres, call for a similar battery array and also a large solar farm to be built as it ends its role as a coal-fired plant by 2028. Both sites are valuable because they have existing connections to the power grid; creating such connections at new sites can lead to years-long delays.

Schiller Generating Station sits on about 81 acres, and only a few will be used by the batteries. That leaves plenty of room for other facilities, which brings us back to the Piscataqua River.

Although it’s on the edge of picturesque Portsmouth, this section of the Piscataqua has long been industrial. The Newington gas-fired power plant, also owned by Granite Shore Power, is adjacent.

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Coal has been brought to Schiller Station by waterway since the plant opened in 1949, unloaded by a huge auger and crane that now stands idle on a dock. Schiller hasn’t operated as a coal-fired power plant since 2020 and never will again, and the question is how to make best use of the port facilities, especially since the river here can handle ships with a draft of 35 feet, making it a legitimate deep-water port.

Granite Shore President Jim Andrews explained what that means to state lawmakers, local officials and interested folks who gathered at Schiller on Wednesday to learn about future plans as part of the annual New Hampshire Energy Week.

The East Coast, Andrews said, lacks the giant ports that can handle all the huge machinery and infrastructure needed to build and maintain offshore wind farms, with the exception of Norfolk, Va,, “and I don’t think the Navy is going to give that up.” As a result, he said, the work must be divvied up among many smaller ports, and that can include Schiller.

Andrews said this idea has been part of the vision for the site since Granite Shore Power bought Schiller and Merrimack Station six years ago. He talked about a trip to Denmark in 2018 to learn about Europe’s offshore wind industry to see how it could translate to New England. “We were clearly ahead of the curve. Policy and the markets were not quite ready,” he commented, a wry reflection on how the United States did little with offshore energy for years, leaving us far behind Europe.

That delay is finally starting to end. In recent years, support from the Biden administration has gotten offshore wind started. A 1,200-megawatt farm, Vineyard Wind 2, is under construction south of Nantucket, and the process of leasing offshore wind in the Gulf of Maine going ahead.

That provides opportunities for ports on New Hampshire’s small ocean coastline to provide materials or logistics for what will be a billion-dollar industry, creating jobs and tax revenue, Andrews said: “We can help make wind power a reality in New Hampshire.”