JOHN HANNA

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) ¿ Westar Energy Inc. announced plans Wednesday to spend up to $380 million upgrading pollution control systems on its coal-fired power plant outside Lawrence.

The Topeka-based utility said the new equipment will reduce emissions of mercury, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide and particulate matter. It expects construction work to begin next year and to finish by 2013, creating about 350 jobs.

Spokeswoman Erin LaRow said the upgrades are in keeping with a climate change policy that Westar announced nearly two years ago, in which it promised to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Also, she said, the utility needs to keep up with federal environmental standards.

"Upgrades at the Lawrence Energy Center are just one more step in our effort to make all of our plants even cleaner while allowing us to continue to meet our customers' energy needs," said Doug Sterbenz, Westar's executive vice president and chief operating officer.

But the upgrades also will increase rates for at least some of Westar's 679,000 customers. The company said it plans to ask state regulators to approve a new surcharge to cover the costs of adding the new pollution controls.

In March, Westar asked the Kansas Corporation Commission for a $34 million increase in charges to customers to cover other environmental costs. The commission expects to issue an order by May 29, and the charges could start showing up on consumers' bills for June.

Westar estimated that it spent $243 million on pollution controls in 2008, most of it at its coal-burning Jeffrey Energy Center outside St. Marys, about 30 miles northwest of Topeka.

David Springe, chief attorney for the Citizens' Utility Ratepayers Board, a state agency representing small businesses and residential utility customers, said consumers should expect to continue seeing their bills rise.

Westar said it plans to build new filtration systems and rebuild the sulfur dioxide scrubbers for two of its three Lawrence units. It also plans to improve the burners on all three units.

Coal-fired plants account for about half of Westar's generating capacity. The Lawrence Energy Center's three coal-fired units have a total capacity of 530 megawatts, or about 8 percent of Westar's total capacity of 6,508 megawatts.

"Everybody who owns a coal plant in the country right now is going through this process of an environmental upgrade," Springe said in an interview. "It's going to be a lot of money. It's going to be a huge rate impact, but we're going to have cleaner air."

In trading Wednesday, Westar's stock fell 22 cents, or 1.3 percent, per share, to close at $17.07.

Copyright 2009 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.