Xcel Energy is considering up to eight projects involving "green" hydrogen, a much talked about but still nascent form of clean energy.
The company already is undertaking a hydrogen pilot project at its Prairie Island nuclear power plant. During an earnings conference call Thursday, Xcel CEO Bob Frenzel said the company is "exploring five to eight additional greenfield and brownfield [hydrogen] projects."
The potential for a federal hydrogen production tax credit — currently part of a bill before Congress — would boost Xcel's hydrogen prospects, he added.
Xcel, Minnesota's largest electricity provider and its second biggest gas utility, posted flat earnings on Thursday, falling short of Wall Street forecasts.
Minneapolis-based Xcel Thursday reported profits of $609 million, or $1.13 a share, compared with $603 million, or $1.14 a share, in 2020's third quarter.
Analysts on average were anticipating earnings of $1.18 per share. Xcel's third quarter sales tallied sales of $3.47 billion, a bit higher than the $3.41 billion forecast by stock analysts.
Xcel's weaker-than-expected quarter appeared to be caused by lower sales in Colorado and the Southwest, combined with increased electric fuel and purchased power expenses.
Xcel's largest markets are Colorado and Minnesota, while it also operates in Texas, New Mexico, Wisconsin, the Dakotas and a small slice of Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
"On a longer term basis, they continue to be on the right path," said Michael Doyle, a stock analyst at Edward Jones. Xcel's stock closed Thursday at $64.37, up 98 cents or 1.6 %.
Frenzel brought up Xcel's hydrogen plans while talking with stock analysts about the firm's long-term investment strategies. He gave no details about the projects.
Hydrogen, which is mostly produced with natural gas, currently has many industrial markets, including oil refining and fertilizer production. But it's also seen as a non-fossil fuel alternative to natural gas in heating systems — if so-called "green hydrogen" can be made affordably with renewable energy.
Xcel, aided by a $10.5 million federal grant, has a pilot project at Prairie Island. It will produce hydrogen by electrolysis, using steam from its nuclear power production.
In electrolysis, an electric current is used to separate water into its components of hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen electrolysis can also be conducted with renewable energy – notably wind in the Upper Midwest.
Hydrogen is a big topic in future clean energy scenarios; it could be used to replace natural gas for both heating and electricity generation. Xcel has plans for new two new natural gas-fired electricity plants in Minnesota that would also be fitted to burn hydrogen.
"Xcel has long been a leader in renewable energy, and we think the next stage of environmental investment is going be developing hydrogen on a large scale," said Travis Miller, an analyst at Morningstar.
Despite hydrogen's promise, there are major barriers to its adoption.
Producing green hydrogen now is far more expensive than conventional hydrogen manufacturing. And big investments would be needed to make the U.S. natural gas pipeline system amenable to large amounts of hydrogen.
Xcel on Thursday narrowed its full-year earnings per share outlook from a range $2.90 to $3, to a range of $2.94 to $2.98.
The company also initiated earnings guidance for 2022 of $3.10 to $3.20 per share, which it says is consistent with its 5 % to 7 % long-term earnings per-share growth.