Boosted by rate increases, Xcel Energy's first-quarter profits soared 20% over a year ago, crushing analysts' estimates.

Minneapolis-based Xcel, Minnesota's largest electric utility and second biggest gas provider, tallied earnings of $362 million, or 67 cents per share, up from $295 million, or 56 cents, in the same period a year ago.

Stock analysts' consensus profit forecast was 62 cents per share. Xcel's sales came in at $3.5 billion, topping analysts' estimates of $2.9 billion.

"Xcel Energy had a strong first quarter and we are reaffirming our expectation to deliver earnings within our annual guidance range," Ben Fowke, Xcel's chief executive, said in a statement.

Xcel's stock closed Thursday at $70.56, up $1.07.

Higher electric and natural gas margins raised Xcel's profits by 18 cents per share, primarily driven by increased rates and riders (which are surcharges to recover utility costs).

A lower effective tax rate also upped Xcel's earnings by 6 cents per share.

"It was a good quarter, not a whole lot of surprises," said Michael Doyle, an analyst with Edward Jones. "They continue to be on the forefront of the utility industry on renewables."

Earlier this month, Xcel formally unveiled plans for a $575 million solar plant in Becker, which would cover 3,480 acres and have four times the capacity of the state's current largest solar farm.

In March, Xcel unveiled plans in Colorado for a 560-mile, $1.7 billion transmission line to accommodate large additions of renewable power in that state.

On a conference call with analysts, Fowke said that the transmission project "might be made all the more affordable with some of the policies that are coming out of the Biden infrastructure plan."

President Joe Biden is prioritizing renewable energy and electricity infrastructure improvements.

That includes tax credits for transmission projects, as well $8 billion in federal financing for some high-voltage power lines.

"I'm really optimistic that we've got a tremendous opportunity in front of us with transmission aided by the policies that I mentioned that will keep the price point low," Fowke said. "And that's in all of our regions (including Minnesota)."

Besides its two primary markets of Minnesota and Colorado, Xcel also operates in Wisconsin, Texas, New Mexico, the Dakotas and a slice of Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003