Northwest Natural Holding Company (NWN) Q1 2022 Earnings Call Transcript

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Northwest Natural Holding Company (NWN 4.00%)
Q1 2022 Earnings Call
May 04, 2022, 11:00 a.m. ET

Contents:

  • Prepared Remarks
  • Questions and Answers
  • Call Participants

Prepared Remarks:

Operator

Hello, and welcome to NW Natural Holdings Company Q1 2022 earnings call. My name is Alex, and I will be coordinating the call today. [Operator instructions]. I will now hand over to your host, Nikki Sparley, director of investor relations.

Over to you, Nikki.

Nikki SparleyDirector of Investor Relations

Thank you, Alex. Good morning and welcome to our first quarter 2022 earnings call. As a reminder, something that we sent this morning contains forward-looking statements. They’re based on management’s assumptions which may or may not occur.

For a complete list, the cautionary statements, refer to the language at the end of our press release. We expect to file our 10-Q later today. As mentioned, this teleconference is being recorded and will be available on our website following the call. Please note these calls are designed for the financial community.

If you are an investor and have additional questions after the call, please contact me directly at (503) 721-2530. News media may contact David Roy at (503) 610-7157. Speaking this morning are David Anderson, president and chief executive officer; and Frank Burkhartsmeyer, senior vice president and chief financial officer. David and Frank have prepared remarks, and then will be available along with other members of our executive team to answer your questions.

With that, I will turn it over to David. 

David AndersonPresiChief Executive Officerdent/CEO

Thank you and good morning, everybody, and welcome. We started off the year strong and in line with our expectations. Our financial results were solid and we continued to make progress on all key objectives. We reported net income today of $1.80 per share in the first quarter, compared to net income of $1.94 per share for the same period last year.

Results for 2021 include a $0.09 per share benefit related to severe cold weather event in February last year. Setting aside financial results in 2022 were driven by new rates in Washington and customer growth, as well as continued growth in expenses as we invest in our natural gas utility system. We also see positive momentum in our local Portland metro area economy. A strong labor market helped to drive unemployment down to near historic lows.

Unemployment rates in Oregon declined to 3.8% in March 2022, compared to 6.1% a year ago. Single-family housing activity remains robust. The average sales price of a home was up over 10% for the first quarter at March 2022 compared to last year. Single-family permits issued were up almost 3% in Oregon through February 2022 compared to the prior period.

Construction and development remain robust in our region. We continue to see a healthy pipeline of conversions to natural gas and single-family homes in the last 12 months. 2,200 customers have converted in our service territory. These conversions, along with new construction, translated into nearly 11,000 customers connected to our gas system during the last 12 months.

That equates to a growth rate of about 1.4%. Our water and wastewater utilities also continue to grow. Strong residential housing construction, primarily in Idaho and Texas, translated into a 3.1% organic customer growth rate over the last 12 months, ended March 31st. The combination of this organic growth and acquisitions resulted in a 27% increase in our water utility connections.

Turning to our decarbonization activities, we continue to make progress under the Landmark Oregon Senate Bill 98 Legislation, which supports renewable energy procurement and investment by natural gas utilities. In January this year, Northwest Natural reached an important milestone as the first R&D facility with Tyson Foods and BioCarbN began operations. Northwest Natural is the first local gas distribution utility in the continent of United States to invest in and own an R&D facility on behalf of all of its sales customers as we work to decarbonize our gas portfolio. Construction on our second facility has begun with commissioning slated for early 2023.

To date, we signed agreements with options to purchase or develop R&D on behalf of our customers totaling about 3% of Northwest Natural’s current annual sales volume in Oregon. I am very proud of the progress we made in less than two years. To put that into perspective, today, wind and solar account for about 12% of our nation’s electric supply after decades of investment. In March, we also interconnected an R&D facility in Eugene, Oregon to our system.

We’re excited [Inaudible] renewables through our own pipeline system here in Oregon. Reflecting our dedication to decarbonization, Northwest Natural was recently named environmental champion among 140 of the largest utilities in a national study by [Inaudible]. I’m proud of our customers recognition of the dedication and leadership in this area and thank them greatly. With that, let me turn it over to Frank to cover the finances of the quarter. 

Frank BurkhartsmeyerSenior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Thank you, David, and good morning, everyone. I’ll begin by discussing the highlights of the first quarter of 2022 results and conclude with guidance for the year. I’ll describe the earnings drivers on an after tax basis using the statutory tax rate of 26.5%. As a reminder, Northwest Natural’s earnings are seasonal, with a majority of the revenues and earnings generated in the first and fourth quarters during the winter heating months.

For the quarter, we reported net income of $56.2 million or $1.80 per share, compared to net income of $59.5 million or $1.94 for the same period in 2021, a decline of $0.14 per share. The decrease in net income largely reflects the $2.8 million or $0.09 per share benefit of the February 2021 cold weather event. The gas utility posted a $0.01 per share increase in earnings, while results from our other businesses declined $0.15 per share. Higher earnings at the gas utility were primarily related to new rates in Washington, customer growth, and an improvement in the results from the gas cost incentive sharing mechanism at the prior year, included the effect of purchasing higher priced gas during the February weather event.

As a result of these factors, utility margin increased $3.7 million. Utility O&M increased $3.5 million, reflecting higher levels of expense from payroll, contractor and professional services, and I.T. upgrades. Utility depreciation and general taxes increased $900,000 due to higher property plant equipment as we continue to invest in our system.

Other income increased $1.9 million, driven by lower pension costs. Net income from our other businesses decreased $4.7 million as the prior period benefited from higher asset management revenues related to the cold weather event. For 2022, cash provided by operating activities was $141 million, an increase of $4 million compared to last year. We invested $70 million into the business, most of which was for gas utility capital expenditures.

On April 1st, we completed an equity offering and received approximately $140 million of proceeds to support our growing businesses. Our balance sheet remains strong with ample liquidity. Moving on to financial guidance. The company reaffirms 2022 earnings guidance today for net income in the range of $2.45 to $2.65 per share.

Guidance assumes continued customer growth, average weather conditions, and no significant changes in prevailing regulatory policies, mechanisms, or outcomes or significant changes in laws, legislation, or regulations. We continue to target a long term earnings-per-share growth rate of 46%. With that, I’ll turn the call back over to David.

David AndersonPresiChief Executive Officerdent/CEO

Thanks, Frank. We continue to progress and execute on our business strategy. Our focus is maximizing returns from our strong and growing regulated gas utilities and positioning our business for incremental long term growth by investing in water utilities and the competitive renewable natural gas business. In addition to moving our gas utility toward a renewable future, last year, we also launched a competitive, renewable natural gas strategy.

We’re committed to leading in the energy transition and providing renewable natural gas to the utility, commercial, industrial, and transportation sectors. We’re focused on providing cost effective solutions to help these sectors decarbonize while existing waste streams and renewable energy sources are using existing waste streams and renewable energy sources. As you know, we’ve already taken our first steps with a 20-year R&D supply agreement and a total of $50 million in investment in two R&D facilities. Construction has begun on both those facilities and we expect them to be placed in service in early 2023.

At the end of January, Mike Kotyk joined our team, leader of competitive R&D efforts. In just a few short months, Mike’s hired additional members of the R&D team who come with significant R&D experience. The team is fully engaged, pursuing incremental opportunities, and putting the final touches on the business plan. We’ll share more details on that in the coming months.

Turning to our water and wastewater utility businesses. As previously mentioned, in December 2021, we signed our largest acquisition to date to acquire Far West water and wastewater utilities in Yuma, Arizona, a very fast growing region which currently serves approximately 25,000 customers. We’ve met with all the Arizona utility commissioners and look forward to working closely with them and staff. In March, we submitted the application for approval of the transaction to the Arizona commission.

We expect to close the transaction in the fourth quarter of this year, and it should be accretive to earnings per share after his first full year of operations. In the first quarter, we also announced additional agreements to acquire two water utilities near our existing systems in Texas. We remain excited about the investment potential for this business and we look forward to more announcements soon. And finally this morning, I’m proud of Northwest Natural Holdings being named one of 2022 world’s most ethical companies by atmosphere.

This reflects our long-standing commitment to leadership and business integrity through best in class ethics, compliance, and governance practices. It was the first year Northwest Natural Holdings has been recognized. It is one of only nine honorees in the energy and utilities industry. In all, 136 honorees were recognized spanning 22 countries and 45 industries.

My view good governance is the backbone of a strong company and will continue to focus on this going forward. In conclusion, your company is financially strong and I’m very pleased with the opportunities we have across all businesses. So with that, thank you for joining us this morning, and, Alex, will open it up for questions if anybody has them.

Questions & Answers:

Operator

Thank you. [Operator instructions]. Our first question for today comes from Julian Smith from Bank of America. Julian, your line is now open.

Kody ClarkBank of America Merrill Lynch — Analyst

Hey, good morning, David and Frank. This is Kody Clark on for Julian. Thanks for the time. So first, curious if you can share more on what you’re seeing with the current inflationary backdrop, and specifically how much is expected as it relates to the IP program for ’22 versus some other pressures that we’ve seen with the backdrop?

Frank BurkhartsmeyerSenior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Hey. Good morning, Kody. It’s Frank. Yes, I would — I don’t want to describe the O&M change that you’re seeing as inflationary.

It’s really an effort that we’re making right now. A lot of that impact is coming from some investments that we’re having to make in I.T. and part of that is taking on some cloud arrangements, which flows through O&M now. That’s a fair piece of that.

The rest of it is salary benefits are up. I wouldn’t call that inflationary. We didn’t see a huge, extraordinary change in our salary and benefits year over year. And then we also have a little bit more business development.

We’re doing R&D now. It’s a competitive market as well as the water business. So you kind of have those three things and then just your ordinary — the business is growing. This is why we filed a rate case for a big part of it year over year.

Just — we knew this growth was coming. I will say, though, that the first quarter shows a bigger change. If you looked at it as a percentage, probably almost double what we would expect for the full year. So we expect O&M to grow this year, nothing unusual there.

But the first quarter, there’s a little bit of a timing impact that because the first quarter versus the first quarter last year a bit higher. So that’ll normalize a bit as the year plays out.

Kody ClarkBank of America Merrill Lynch — Analyst

Understood. Got it. And regulated R&D, you’re at 3% of audience. But as we think about the caps in 25 and beyond, how should we be thinking about your ability to read these investments versus just off take? So what’s the difference in customer cost, if any, and any data points or color there that you can point to would be helpful?

David AndersonPresiChief Executive Officerdent/CEO

Yes. I think the number one thing that you and everybody should understand is we’re going to do all we can to decarbonize as much of our products as we can under Senate Bill 98, and that will be through — it could be through investments or it could be through just direct purchases, whatever is in the best interest of our customers. And right now, we’ve done that and we’ve done it through a rate based investment with Tyson, an opportunity that I referenced in my prepared remarks. And then we’ve also got purchase agreements.

So I expect more coming down as we continue to progress, and hopefully reaches close to the limits of Senate Bill 98 as quickly as we possibly can. So it’s a little hard right now to say X amount will come from rate based, X amount will come from purchases. I can’t  — will do what is in the best interest of our customers, which I believe going forward will be a combination of above.

Kody ClarkBank of America Merrill Lynch — Analyst

OK. Got it. And then just lastly, if I can squeeze it in on competitive R&D, and you mentioned potentially getting some additional announcements here. But wondering if there’s any timing that you can point to? Is it a matter of getting those first projects under your belt and then service in early 2023 before committing to anything incremental? Or could we see some additional announcements sooner?

David AndersonPresiChief Executive Officerdent/CEO

Yes. Well, we’re in the early stages, as we just mentioned. I’m really pleased with the progress that Mike has made with his team and getting the team established. There’s already incremental opportunities that we’re looking at, and it’s one of the reasons when we came out with a strategy late last year that we raised our earnings growth guidance from a 3 to 5% to 4 to 6%, because we do see additional opportunities here that will help the company grow faster than it would without that.

So more details to come in the coming months. But you’re right, Kody, I think we need to do some more transactions and then will be a little bit more descriptive when those transactions happen. And some of those could be development, some of them could be contract purchases, and we market them. There’s various options that Mike is working through with the team right now.

Kody ClarkBank of America Merrill Lynch — Analyst

OK. That’s very helpful. Thanks so much for the time, and good luck.

David AndersonPresiChief Executive Officerdent/CEO

You bet. Thank you.

Operator

Thank you. [Operator instructions]. Our next question for this day comes from Selman Akyol from Stifel. Selman, your line is now open.

Selman AkyolStifel Financial Corp. — Analyst

Thank you. Good morning. Just staying with renewables, was there any update on hydrogen? I mean, we’re just starting to hear more about it. So I was just curious, from what you’re seeing on your side.

David AndersonPresiChief Executive Officerdent/CEO

Not a new update in front of that can be one off. Kind of give an indication what we’re working on —

Nikki SparleyDirector of Investor Relations

And we have a couple of best efforts that are active right now. One of them is a continuation of our work with [Inaudible] and electric utility to develop a hydrogen blending project [Inaudible], where we’re out there as we we have an engineer and equipment consultant working on finishing the project plan. We also hired a consultant to do a system audit, it’s a readiness audit in that site and where we’re going to be blending in that area that helps us understand hydrogen readiness for all our pipes and components and meters. And we expect that work to be done in July.

And then we’ll be wrapping all of that into a potential filing under Senate Bill 98 here in Oregon, along with securing potentially other funding from the Clean Energy Fund in the United States. The other thing that we’re doing is continuing our hydrogen blend test at our Sherwin facility in Oregon, and we’ve been blending about 5% hydrogen in a section of that facility for about a year and a half. Testing and use applications, furnaces, water heaters, fireplaces. Our 2022 goals are to step up that blend to a 24/7 operation with a ramp up of 15% blend and 5% increments through this year, of course, subject to performance both in our system and on the end use equipment.

And we’re looking at other, you know, other opportunities with hydrogen in our area and nationally partnering with other groups. The application that I mentioned for the Eugene Project would be under that Senate Bill 98. That is legislation that was passed several years ago in Oregon that allows natural gas utilities to apply for funding on projects that reduce emissions that would otherwise not be cost effective. So it’s an avenue that we have to work collectively with the U.S.

electric utility and — I’m sorry, it’s [Inaudible] 844, as I said 98. I apologize. That’s our energy legislation, but a lot of activity. And you’re right, we’re hearing a lot of interested in hydrogen and we’re working hard on it ourselves. 

David AndersonPresiChief Executive Officerdent/CEO

Some — and I mean, we’re really focused on R&D and hydrogen. They’re both going to be the solutions for the industry and I would argue for the greater economy as a whole. So hopefully more to come on that front. But we’re all in on both.

Selman AkyolStifel Financial Corp. — Analyst

Got it, and very helpful. I’m just pivoting over to water space, maybe talk a little bit about what you’re seeing out there and maybe your pipeline and just how pricing is going, or is there upward pressure on on the systems that you’re seeing in terms of pricing? Or is it sort of in line with what you’ve been doing?

David AndersonPresiChief Executive Officerdent/CEO

I’m really pleased with the success we’ve had today in the last year or so, but just wanted to — Justin’s as our president of the water company. And let me get him to address.

Justin PalfreymanVice President, Strategy and Business Development

Good morning, Selman. We continue to see a robust set of opportunities in the pipeline, in the water space. It is competitive and there’s a number of players out there that are also pursuing opportunities. That competition varies a little bit depending on the specific market.

But we are pleased with the progress we’ve been making and we see a fairly robust pipeline of opportunities going forward. We will continue to tuck in smaller acquisitions around our existing service territories and we’re working hard on investing in the existing utilities that we own. We actually just completed a couple of great cases this last quarter with new rates in effect made first in both — in one of our Oregon subsidiaries and one of our Washington subsidiaries. So things are going well there, and I believe that we’ll continue to see robust opportunities and acquisitions going forward.

Selman AkyolStifel Financial Corp. — Analyst

All right. Thank you very much.

David AndersonPresiChief Executive Officerdent/CEO

All right. Thank you, Selman.

Operator

Thank you. We have no further questions for today, so I’ll hand it back to David Anderson for any closing remarks.

Duration: 22 minutes

Call participants:

Nikki SparleyDirector of Investor Relations

David AndersonPresiChief Executive Officerdent/CEO

Frank BurkhartsmeyerSenior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Kody ClarkBank of America Merrill Lynch — Analyst

Selman AkyolStifel Financial Corp. — Analyst

Justin PalfreymanVice President, Strategy and Business Development

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