Colder winter weather and rate increases that took effect in five of the eight states its serves boosted first-quarter profits at Xcel Energy Inc., the company reported Thursday.

The first quarter not only was colder than normal, but it contrasted with the abnormally warm first quarter of 2012, boosting the recent margins in the natural gas business by $22 million, the Minneapolis-based electric and gas utility said.

The biggest gain, $75 million, in electric and natural gas margins reflected imposition of rate increases in Colorado, South Dakota and Wisconsin, and interim rate hikes that are subject to refund in Minnesota and North Dakota, the company said.

As a result, Xcel Energy's profits per share rose 26 percent in the first quarter.

The company reported earning $237 million, or 48 cents per share, for the three months ending in March, compared with $184 million, or 38 cents per share a year ago. The adjusted earnings per share beat analysts' consensus estimate by more than 3 cents.

Xcel Chairman and CEO Ben Fowke said he remains "cautiously optimistic" about getting a Minnesota electricity rate increase that would satisfy the company and its critics. Xcel has publicly sliced its original request to $220 million, an 8.2 percent rate increase, down from $285 million, or 10.7 percent, filed last year. An interim rate hike is in effect while regulators review the case.

Businesses and other interests, including the state Commerce Department on behalf of customers, want the proposed increase reduced even more. One key issue is Xcel's return on equity. Xcel wants a 10.6 percent return, while the department has argued for 9.8 percent.

Xcel said its reaffirmed 2013 earnings guidance of $1.85 to $1.95 per share is based on an undisclosed estimate of the outcome of the Minnesota case. Fowke told analysts on a conference call that the expected rate increase will be less than the interim rates, which means that excess customer payments since January will need to be refunded.

"Clearly, the recommended level of recovery is not commensurate with over $5 billion of investment that is planned over the next five years," Fowke said of the Minnesota rate case, which addresses investment in power plant upgrades. "We will work with parties to narrow issues where we can."

Travis Miller, an analyst for Morningstar, estimates that Xcel will get a $165 million Minnesota rate increase, roughly midway between the company's and the Commerce Department's positions. That would translate to about a 6 percent rate increase.

"Utilities always ask for the golden package, and we consistently see that regulators come back with decisions that grant utilities less," Miller said in an interview.

Fowke said that a natural gas rate increase sought in Colorado also faced challenges from some interests. While rate settlements have occurred in Texas and South Dakota, Fowke also said the company is "not earning an acceptable return in South Dakota."

The first-quarter gains were partly offset by higher operating and maintenance expenses, depreciation and property taxes, the company said. First-quarter revenues were $2.78 billion, up 8 percent compared with a year ago, the company said.

Xcel operates in eight states, including Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Dakota and South Dakota. It serves 3.4 million electricity customers and 1.9 million natural gas customers.

Profits rose in three of Xcel's four utility divisions — the Minnesota regional operation that also covers parts of North Dakota and South Dakota, and its units in Wisconsin and Colorado. Xcel's Texas-New Mexico utility unit had flat earnings per share.

Electricity sales, which have been lagging across the utility industry, rose 0.5 percent overall for Xcel in the first-quarter when adjusted for year-to-year variations such as weather. But in the Minnesota region, adjusted retail electricity sales declined 0.5 percent in the quarter compared with a year ago, said Chief Financial Officer Teresa Madden.

Xcel's adjusted net income rose 29 percent in the first quarter, but the effect per share was slightly less because the company recently sold 7.7 million shares, raising $233 million toward a goal of boosting equity by $400 million, Madden said. Xcel also issued new debt with the goal of saving a projected $30 million on lower-interest debt payments this year, she said.

Xcel shares closed Thursday at $31.35, down 9 cents.

David Shaffer • 612-673-7090 Twitter: @ShafferStrib