Increase in projected cost to build a new facility throws into question the proposal’s future.

Increase in projected cost to build a new facility throws into question the proposal’s future.

Westar Energy has postponed deciding where to build a new coal-fired electricity plant, saying higher costs mean it may not be the cheapest way to meet future power demands.

The Topeka-based utility had planned to pick a site by the end of the year, and spokeswoman Gina Penzig said it had narrowed the number of potential sites to fewer than 10, though the company won’t reveal them.

There’s no new timetable for picking a site and no timetable for construction, though the company had said previously it hoped to have the new plant online by 2015.

When Westar announced its plans in May 2005, it estimated the cost of building the new plant at $1 billion. That projected cost is now up to $1.4 billion, and Jim Haines, Westar’s chief executive officer, said the company needs to move cautiously.

”When we started this process over a year ago, the lowest-cost means to satisfy these needs was with a coal-fueled power plant,” he said in a written statement. ”That assumption does not necessarily remain valid.”

Westar is the state’s largest electric company, with 667,000 customers. It also plans to build two natural gas-fired generating units outside Emporia, at an estimated cost of $318 million, to provide electricity when demand peaks.

The utility’s decision to postpone its site search for the coal-fired plant comes amid an ongoing debate about plans by Hays-based Sunflower Electric Power Corp. to build three coal-fired plants near Holcomb.

Sunflower is seeking a state air-quality permit for its project and has met with opposition from environmentalists and others concerned that new coal-fired plants would increase pollution and contribute to global warming. The state Department of Health and Environment hasn’t decided whether to issue the permit.

Charles Benjamin, attorney and lobbyist for the Sierra Club’s state chapter, said there has been similar criticism of a plan by Kansas City Power and Light Co. to build a new coal-fired plant near Weston.

Penzig said Westar’s plans weren’t influenced by the debate surrounding Sunflower’s project.

”The decision was based on the economics of the project,” she said.

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