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Northwest Natural Holding Co (NYSE:NWN)
Q1 2021 Earnings Call
May 5, 2021, 11:00 a.m. ET

Contents:

  • Prepared Remarks
  • Questions and Answers
  • Call Participants

Prepared Remarks:

Operator

Good morning and welcome to the NW Natural Holding Company First Quarter 2021 Conference Call. [Operator Instructions] Please note that this event is being recorded.

I'd now like to turn the call over the Miss Nikki Sparley, IR Director. Please go ahead.

Nikki Sparley -- Director, Investor Relations

Thanks, Nick. Good morning and welcome to our first quarter 2021 earnings call.

As a reminder, some of the things that will be said this morning contain forward-looking statements. They are based on management's [Technical Issues]. For a complete list of our cautionary statements, please 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 also contact me. We look forward to see many of you at the American Gas Association Financial Forum in a few weeks. Please also contact me if you have any questions about the event or meeting with our management team.

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 we'll be available, along with other members of our executive team, to answer your questions.

With that, I will turn it over to David.

David H. Anderson -- President and Chief Executive Officer

Well, thanks, Nikki, and good morning everybody. Thanks for joining us. Well, our year is off to a great start. Our financial results are solid, and we continue to make progress on all key objectives. We reported net income of $1.94 per share in the first quarter that compares to net income from continuing operations of $1.58 per share for the same period last year. New rates in Oregon drove results of the Gas Utility along with continued healthy customer growth and improved results from our interstate storage business. I'm pleased with how all of our systems operated over the winter and specifically during the widespread cold snap in February.

Our extensive resource planning and the value of our gas storage assets were proven once again. Our team successfully managed gas supplies to mitigate the impact of the event on customers and additionally through a third-party, we were able to optimize our gas supply portfolio, capturing asset management revenues, which aid results but also offset higher gas cost for our customers.

While many areas of the country will experience significantly elevated bills, our customers are going to fare quite well. Our commitment to safety and reliability served Northwest Natural Water customers well in February also. Our water utilities operating in the Pacific Northwest served customers through the February event without disruption. In Texas, power outages resulted in freezing and bursting pipes on roughly half of our systems, but we were able to restore water service within 24 to 48 hours to all customers.

Now a few notes on the economy. The COVID vaccine has been rolled out in all states that we operate, economic reports for our region continued to show good recovery and growth in several important areas. Oregon's unemployment rate was 6.1% in February, which is comparable to the national rate. Single-family housing activity remained strong. In the Portland metro region, home sales were up 7.4% from 2020 with price growth of about 12% on average. And new single-family permits issued were up 5.7% in Oregon over the last 12 months compared to the prior period. We continue to see good customer growth. New construction plus conversions translated into connecting over 11,000 meters during the 12 months ended March 31, which equates to a growth rate of 1.4%.

Our water and wastewater utilities also continue to grow. Strong residential housing construction primarily in Idaho, Texas and Washington translated into a strong 3% growth rate. We also closed on tuck-in acquisitions this past year, leading to an overall customer growth rate of almost 6% -- actually 5.8% to be exact.

So with that, let me turn it over to Frank to cover the financials. Frank, over to you.

Frank Burkhartsmeyer -- Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Thank you, David, and good morning everyone. I will begin today by discussing the highlights of first quarter 2021 results and conclude with guidance for the year. I'll describe 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 revenues and earnings generated in the first and fourth quarters during the winter heating months.

For the quarter, we reported net income of $59.5 million or $1.94 per share compared to net $48.3 million or $1.58 per share of net income from continuing operations for the same period in 2020. The Gas Utility posted an increase of $0.19 per share and our other activities contributed an additional $0.17 per share compared to last year. Higher earnings at the Gas Utility were primarily related to new rates set in Oregon in November of 2020, offset in part by higher depreciation and general tax expense. Utility margin in the Gas Distribution segment increased $13.6 million as a result of the new rates and customer growth, which were partly offset by the $1.8 million greater loss from the gas cost incentive sharing mechanism as we purchased higher gas -- priced gas during the February cold weather event than was forecasted for the year.

Utility O&M increased $2.1 million in the quarter, reflecting higher compensation and non-payroll expenses. Depreciation expense and general taxes increased $3.3 million. In addition to the impact of the higher pre-tax income, tax expense increased $1.7 million due to the net effect of the Oregon Corporate Activity Tax and the ongoing amortization of tax benefits from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. This impact is largely a timing matter, which will correct over the course of the year with no significant expected effect on net income.

Net income from our other businesses increased $5.3 million due to $4.6 million of higher asset management revenues from the weather event as David mentioned. In addition, other businesses benefited from higher earnings at the water and wastewater utilities, from assets we acquired in Washington and Texas last year, as well as lower expenses at our holding company.

Cash provided by operating activities was $137 million or an increase of $32 million compared to last year. We reinvested $64 million into the business, most of which was Gas Utility capital expenditures. Our balance sheet remains strong with ample liquidity.

From an earnings perspective, the ongoing effects of COVID are largely limited to commercial customer disconnects and slightly lower usage from non-decoupled customers, as well as late fee revenues that will be recognized at a future date when we begin recovery. And as David noted, commercial customer accounts remained steady during the first quarter, even as we began normal collection practices. Furthermore, we have a good -- had a good response to past due notices with a substantial reduction in delinquent balances. We will continue to closely monitor usage levels and commercial customer losses and be disciplined in cost management. We are pleased to note that 97% of our commercial and industrial customers are current with their bills.

The company reaffirmed 2021 earnings guidance today for net income in the range of $2.40 to $2.60 per share. The 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.

With that, I'll turn the call back over to David for his concluding remarks.

David H. Anderson -- President and Chief Executive Officer

Thanks, Frank. While our business model allows us to adapt to unforeseen challenges such as the coronavirus pandemic and the most recent weather event, while also delivering on our commitments to all of our stakeholders, our decisions are guided by our long-standing core values and those values inform our environmental, social and governance goals and actions.

So today, I'll walk you through just a few of our priorities and progress. First is safety. It's our greatest responsibility to our customers, our employees and the communities we serve. In the 1980s, Northwest Natural proactively created a pipeline replacement program with our public utility commissions. And by 2015, we had replaced all of our cast iron and bare steel pipe. We are one of the first local distribution companies to completely remove those legacy pipelines and, today, as a result, operate one of the most modern and tightest systems in the nation, but we remain vigilant. For example, we performed safety inspections on our transmission system at nearly three times the rate required by federal and state regulations.

Our long-standing core value of environmental stewardship is also a driving force behind the choices we make every day in our operations in planning for the future. We believe climate change requires rapid innovation and collective action, which is why we're committed to reimagining the role of our system and the fuel we deliver. In 2016, we established a 30% carbon savings goal to be achieved by 2035 starting from a 2015 baseline. This goal is for our own operations and importantly, the use. It also includes the use of natural gas by our customers and I want to underscore, this is a very unique and aggressive voluntary goal as compared to others. It has been a catalyst for us to lead beyond our walls by building public policy coalitions that support innovation and new thinking.

One example of that is the groundbreaking Oregon Senate Bill 98, which allows us to procure renewable natural gas, including hydrogen, for our customers here in Oregon. This law goes further than any other current law in the U.S. by outlining goals for adding as much as 30% renewables on the system by 2050. I'm proud to report that we made good progress on our carbon savings goal and results through 2020 show we are on track to meet or exceed that original target.

Energy efficiency contributed nearly half of the savings achieved, with our voluntary carbon offset program also providing significant savings. And finally our producer emissions screening tool allows us to prioritize purchases from lower and medium producers and also contributed to the goal.

The benefits we're reaping today are from programs and efforts that we began many years ago. It's a good reminder that having a vision and a commitment to pursue it is critical to realizing significant change, which is why we're not stopping there. We believe we can leverage renewables in our existing modern system along with other innovations to further decarbonize our system. Our vision forward is to be carbon-neutral energy provider by 2050. We know the current tools for driving to carbon neutrality, but this year, we are modeling multiple scenarios to better understand the different pathways. While we expect this analysis to evolve over time, having a start to specific roadmaps and options will allow us to begin advocating for additional policy support and putting programs and people in place for long-term success.

We know our customers and communities value finding the right environmental solutions along -- among many other priorities, which is why we monitor customer satisfaction carefully to inform our work. And I'm pleased to report this is an area our employees continue to excel.

Last year, Northwest Natural scored second in the West for large utilities in the J.D. Power Gas Utility Residential Customer Satisfaction Study and were named a Customer Champion by Escalent after placing second in the nation among electric and gas utilities in their most recent study. And finally, just a few weeks ago, Northwest Natural was also named an Environmental Champion among 140 of the largest utilities in a national study by Cogent. I am so proud of customers' recognition of our dedication and leadership in this area and extremely proud of our employees.

Now a few items on our water utilities. As part of our focus to build a healthy, growing water business, we regularly invest in infrastructure improvements, such as pipe replacements, new wells and execute on multi-year plans for larger upgrades. In 2020, we worked to upgrade technology across our water platform, making it possible to proactively detect and fix issues that caused service interruptions. To build a culture of safety, we began implementing consistent safety standards and trainings across all locations. All of this preparation came into play with good results. In 2020, our water systems experienced no COVID-related service interruptions. And as I mentioned, our employees in Texas were able to quickly get systems back up and running during the February 2021 winter event.

We're also staying focused on supporting our water utilities with a comprehensive analysis and assistance during rate cases. In 2020, we filed three rate cases and have already concluded one of those in Idaho. At the same time, we continue acquiring water utilities and expanding our water family. I continue to remain very excited about the investment potential and the growth opportunities in this business.

Thanks for joining us this morning. And with that, Nick, I think we're ready to open it up for anybody that has any questions.

Questions and Answers:

Operator

Thank you. [Operator Instructions] First question comes from Cody Clark [Phonetic] of Bank of America. Please go ahead.

Cody Clark -- Bank of America -- Analyst

Hey, good morning, everyone. Thanks for taking my question.

David H. Anderson -- President and Chief Executive Officer

Good morning.

Cody Clark -- Bank of America -- Analyst

So first on RNG. I'm wondering if you've identified any additional investments under SB 98 at this point. You've included a small placeholder in your capex plan, but how are you thinking about the upside here, given some of the market trends that we are seeing? And how does this play into your long-term rate base and earnings growth? So any color here would be super helpful.

David H. Anderson -- President and Chief Executive Officer

Yeah. We've already made good progress already with the Tyson opportunity that we announced a couple of months ago. But Justin Palfreyman, you're on the phone, why don't you take this one?

Justin B. Palfreyman -- Vice President, Strategy and Business Development

Yeah, happy to take the question. And it's a very good question. There's a lot of activity going on in the RNG space and we have a lot of discussions and our team is engaged in around both investment and procurement opportunities for RNG. And we expect that we'll continue to make both investments and sign off-take agreements as we decarbonize our product. We don't have anything that we can specifically announce today, but we do expect that activity here will continue.

Cody Clark -- Bank of America -- Analyst

Got it. Okay. And just on the Washington regulatory front, the Governor recently signed a multi-year rate plan legislation. So I'm wondering how you're thinking about your ongoing rate case and future rate cases there.

David H. Anderson -- President and Chief Executive Officer

Yeah. We are right in the middle of a rate case as you just indicated and the multi-year aspect is an important piece of that. Mardi, do you want to -- I think you're on the line, do you want to say anything about the multi-year aspects of the plans?

MardiLyn Saathoff -- Senior Vice President, Regulation and General Counsel

Sure. Our filing did include a multi-year plan, it was made transparent to the Commission before we filed. They we're encouraged by our approach and I would say that right now, we -- as noted from the filing yesterday, we are in negotiations for settlement. The docket has been amended to allow for finalization of that settlement and we're hopeful that we can reach settlement and then with all the parties.

Cody Clark -- Bank of America -- Analyst

Understood. Great. That's all I had. Thanks so much for the time.

Operator

Thank you. [Operator Instructions] Next question comes from Selman Akyol, Stifel. Please go ahead.

Selman Akyol -- Stifel -- Analyst

Thank you. Good morning.

David H. Anderson -- President and Chief Executive Officer

Good morning.

Selman Akyol -- Stifel -- Analyst

In your press release you referenced sort of $1 million of non-recoverable COVID costs. So it's kind of a two-part. Number one is, with things opening back up, when do you think you get beyond those costs? And then number two, should we kind of expect that to then eventually just get eaten up by inflation pressures you're seeing? And if you could maybe discuss where you are seeing inflation pressures.

David H. Anderson -- President and Chief Executive Officer

Yeah. Frank, do you want to cover some of the numbers?

Frank Burkhartsmeyer -- Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

You bet. Yeah, so the main effect that we've seen in the first quarter is really more of the opportunity. We have commercial customers -- we continue to add commercial customers. But we continued -- during the last year, we lost some commercial customers. We were a couple of thousands down from where we would expect to be. So the primary impact in the first quarter was really the margin that we don't get because we don't have those customers now at the beginning of the year. So that's the majority of that. We also have the impact of late fees that we are able to defer, these missing late fees, but we're not able to recognize them yet because we don't yet have a recovery mechanism. So, they will show up in revenues in the future when we have that mechanism. But right now, there is revenue associated with that, that we just can't recognize. So those are the real opportunities that we're missing in the first quarter, I would say, as opposed to any particular expense.

There is a little -- small amount of increase in bad debt, but that's all deferred. We have a very solid deferral mechanism for almost all of the costs. So it's really the margin that's missing. And then this inability to recognize late fees until we have a recovery mechanism.

As regards inflation, I would just comment that you see inflation in your capital cost. They do have an impact there and, to some extent, salaries and benefits too. The economy is -- it's not necessarily so evident at the moment. But over the last few years, of course, Oregon and Washington have been desirable places, job growth was strong. So, you definitely saw that impact there and as well as your regular benefits, healthcare those sorts of things.

Selman Akyol -- Stifel -- Analyst

All right. And then you also -- just in terms of industrial customers, you gave a number that was current. Can you also give that same number for the residential?

Frank Burkhartsmeyer -- Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

I should be able to, Selman, I don't have that number at my fingertips. Nikki might be able to pull that number on the residential customer count. I apologize, I just don't have that at hand.

Selman Akyol -- Stifel -- Analyst

No worries. That's all I had. Thanks.

Operator

Thank you. This concludes our question and answer-session. I'll now turn the conference back over to Mr. David Anderson for closing remarks.

David H. Anderson -- President and Chief Executive Officer

All right, Nick, thank you. Thank you again, everybody, for taking time this morning to be with us. We look forward, as Nikki said, to meeting with many of you at the American Gas Association Financial Conference in a few weeks. If you have any questions, then Nikki is the person you need to get a hold of. So again, thank you and this concludes the conference.

Operator

[Operator Closing Remarks]

Duration: 20 minutes

Call participants:

Nikki Sparley -- Director, Investor Relations

David H. Anderson -- President and Chief Executive Officer

Frank Burkhartsmeyer -- Senior Vice President and Chief Financial Officer

Justin B. Palfreyman -- Vice President, Strategy and Business Development

MardiLyn Saathoff -- Senior Vice President, Regulation and General Counsel

Cody Clark -- Bank of America -- Analyst

Selman Akyol -- Stifel -- Analyst

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