Despite flat sales and economic uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Xcel Energy grew its 2020 profits by nearly 6%.

The Minneapolis-based utility's profits declined a bit in the fourth quarter but met stock analysts' estimates.

"Overall 2020 was a truly stellar year," Xcel CEO Ben Fowke said in a conference call with analysts Thursday.

Xcel's sales were essentially unchanged in 2020 over the previous year due to short-term COVID-related declines in power demand, as well long-term downward trends in electricity conservation.

But the company grew its earnings primarily through regulatory rate increases in Colorado, Wisconsin, Texas and New Mexico. Meanwhile, Xcel's operation and maintenance expenses fell 1% in 2020.

"They have done a pretty good job of controlling costs," said Mike Doyle, a stock analyst for Edward Jones.

Overall, Xcel has performed well relative to other utilities over the past year, Doyle said. "Its earnings growth has been solid, especially in a year in which we have all faced the pandemic."

Utilities could be in more of spotlight under new President Joe Biden, whose climate agenda includes a 100% clean-energy standard by 2035.

In Minnesota, DFL House members recently introduced a bill for 100% clean energy by 2040, revised from 2050 in legislation during the previous two years that had run into a wall in the Republican Senate.

Xcel was one of the first U.S. electricity providers to target 100% clean power by 2050, and it plans to generate 80% carbon-free energy by 2030. But Fowke reiterated that even getting to 100% by 2050 will require new — and economically viable — technologies.

"Getting to 80% is not easy, but we know we can do it with existing technology, and I know I can do it in a way that preserves affordability and reliability," he said.

"But just to move completely away from fossil [fuel] would require an incredible emergence and acceleration of technologies that I think are still a ways away. … 2035 is like tomorrow in utility land as far as technologies go."

Xcel reported fourth-quarter net earnings of $288 million, or 54 cents per share, down from $292 million, or 56 cents per share, for the same period a year ago.

The company's fourth-quarter sales tallied $2.9 billion, up 3.5% from a year ago, but short of analysts' forecasts of $3.1 billion.

The rather uneventful quarter capped a year in which Xcel grew its 2020 profits from $2.64 per share to $2.79 and met or exceeded its earnings guidance for the 16th consecutive year.

Xcel on Thursday affirmed its 2021 guidance of $2.90 per share to $3. "I think we have great organic growth in front of us," Fowke told analysts.

Xcel is Minnesota's largest electric utility and second-largest natural gas provider. The company's other primary market is Colorado; it also operates in Wisconsin, Texas, New Mexico, the Dakotas and a slice of Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

The company's stock closed Thursday at $63.64, down 18 cents. Xcel's shares hit an all-time high of nearly $75 in mid-November but have fallen since along with utility stocks generally.

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003