Utility executives praise stability, rein in growth expectations

HOUSTON, Feb. 14 — Utility business strategy has changed in less than a year to reflect a new interest in cash flow, sustainable earnings, and more modest growth rates, utility executives said Thursday at the Cambridge Energy Research Associates conference.

Executives also noted that coal-fired power plants still command the major share of generation even though there has been a rush to build gas-fired power plants.

The new strategy, which downplays merchant energy, emerged after power and gas commodity prices hit historic highs and then lows within 1 year and after Enron Corp., one of the largest energy players, collapsed.

“We are rethinking our view of the energy industry,” said James Ferland, CEO of Public Service Enterprise Group Inc., Newark, NJ. “Predictions for growth are now 4-10% instead of expected growth of 15-20%.”

Linn Draper, CEO of American Electric Power Co. Inc., Columbus, Ohio, said there is more of a focus on steady reliable earnings and a solid balance sheet. “There is even a concern out there that the merchant side of the business is too risky and may detract from the earnings of the utility business,” Draper said.

Robert Green, CEO of UtiliCorp United Inc., Kansas City, Mo., agreed there is more emphasis on an integrated strategy for utilities that is perceived as less risky. “Now we are focused on balanced integrated strategy that is a comfort to investors,” Green said.

UtiliCorp repurchased its marketing and trading business Aquila Inc., which it had spun off to the public last year, in order to marry the trading with the utility’s physical assets.

Coal should not be forgotten in the rush to build gas fired power plants, panelists said. “The expectation has been that natural gas will be the dominant fuel for generation. But the reality is coal will be the fuel of choice for electricity for a long time,” said Anthony Earley, CEO DTE Energy Co., Detroit. “Fifty percent of the megawatts generated in the US are fueled by coal.”

If gas-fueled generation continues to take generation share from coal, the gas infrastructure will be “severely challenged,” he said.

Utility executives also praised diversification to weather the kinds of storms that happened this year. “It has been our view that we are best served by adopting a robust strategy of diversification to make somewhat less critical the need to accurately anticipate specific future developments,” Ferland said.

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