Power potpourri helps Puget Energy profit

SPOKANE, WASHINGTON - Puget Energy's push to increase its wind, coal and natural-gas generation paid off last quarter with a slightly higher profit even as a shortfall in regional hydropower crimped earnings at most utilities.

The winter's unusually cold weather caused a spike in demand among consumers, but it also resulted in an unyielding snowpack. As a result, the Bellevue company's hydro plants generated 37 percent less power than last year due to smaller runoffs.

Spokane-based Avista also reported lower-than-expected hydroelectric generation.

But Puget Energy's other sources, which included a recently acquired natural-gas-fired plant in Goldendale, Klickitat County, produced 21.7 percent more electricity than last year. The increase allowed the company to buy 7 percent less power in the more expensive open market, shoring up profits.

Puget Energy's net income grew 0.9 percent to $79.8 million, the company said in a recent filing. Electricity margins jumped 12.9 percent million to $222 million, in part due to higher sales. Net earnings per share, however, fell 10.3 percent to 61 cents, because an increase in the number of outstanding shares diluted profits.

The expensive campaign to increase its own power-generating capacity helped lead Puget Energy, which runs Washington's largest utility, to sell itself to a group of Australian and Canadian investors for $7.4 billion. The company expects state and federal agencies to approve the deal in the fourth quarter.

Puget has requested permission from the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission to raise rates of 12 percent for electric-residential customers and 6 percent for residential gas users in November to compensate for capital investments and higher operating costs.

A $293 million equity infusion by the acquiring group, led by Australian investment bank Macquarie, in December increased the number of shares by nearly 11 percent. The quarterly results were "in line" with Wall Street expectations, said McAdams Wright Ragen analyst Paul Latta. He added that Puget Energy usually sees its strongest results in the first and fourth quarters.

Regulated utilities' income is influenced by rates controlled by state authorities, but also by factors such as prices for coal and gas, operating efficiency, and weather. Natural gas margins rose 11.3 percent to $123 million, as the utility spent less on gas purchases. The company, a regulated monopoly that provides natural gas and electricity to the Eastside and natural gas to Seattle, reported a 1.7 percent increase in electric customers and 2.4 percent increase in gas customers. Puget Energy is saving money by generating more of its own electricity and by paying less for natural gas, which it stockpiled last summer, when it was cheaper.

But it is paying more for maintenance, and fuel costs have nearly doubled. The utility also had higher depreciation costs than last year. A settlement with the operators of a coal-based power plant in Montana cost the company some $6.9 million after taxes. In total, operating expenses rose to 5.6 percent to $893 million.


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