There is a common misconception among investors that they can earn the highest returns from growth stocks that don't pay dividends. While many growth stocks do outperform -- spectacularly in some cases -- most underperform dividend payers, especially those that consistently grow their payouts. In fact, since 1972, dividend growth stocks delivered an average annual return of 9.89% versus just 2.39% from nonpayers, according to a study by Ned Davis Research.

While there are dividend growers out there, three with visible growth on the horizon are ConocoPhillips (NYSE:COP)Antero Midstream (NYSE:AM), and TerraForm Power (NASDAQ:TERP). Those steadily rising income streams make it more likely that this trio could outperform over the next several years.

Rising coin stocks in the dirt with plants growing on top.

Image source: Getty Images.

Reset for growth

ConocoPhillips had a long history of paying a steadily increasing dividend, but that all came crashing down along with oil prices a few years ago. As a result, it reset its payout in 2016 to a level it could more easily afford to grow at lower oil prices. ConocoPhillips has done just that over the past two years, growing its dividend 6% in 2017 and by 7.5% this year. With that latest raise, the stock yields 2%, which is slightly above the average of companies in the S&P 500.

The oil giant aims to keep lifting its payout at a steady rate over the next few years. While ConocoPhillips hasn't provided dividend growth guidance, the company did forecast the ability to expand cash flow at a 10% compound annual growth rate through 2020, and that's assuming $50 oil. With crude in the mid-$60s right now, cash flow should increase more quickly, giving the company more money to repurchase shares. Those factors suggest ConocoPhillips' payout could go up at a double-digit clip over the next couple of years, potentially fueling total returns at or above that level from here.

Keeping its foot on the gas

Antero Midstream has been growing its payout briskly since going public in 2014, increasing it by an impressive 30% last year alone. The midstream master limited partnership expects to maintain a similarly torrid pace over the next several years. As things stand, the company anticipates a payout hike of 28% to 30% annually through 2020, with 20% increases planned for 2021 and 2022. If the company hits that target, its distribution yield for those buying today will go from the current rate of 5.8% up to a jaw-dropping 15.5% in five years.

Fueling Antero Midstream's impressive dividend growth are expansion projects it expects to complete over the next few years. Overall, the company plans to invest $2.7 billion in building new natural gas pipelines and processing plants, which it can fully finance with excess cash and its credit facility. That high-octane growth has the power to fuel big-time total returns in the coming years.

A rising stack of coins with a bar chart and an upward arrow in the background.

Image source: Getty Images.

Restarted and ready to grow

TerraForm Power has a checkered dividend history. While the renewable power company busted out of the gate in 2014 and quickly expanded its payout, it hit pause in late 2015 due to financial troubles at its former parent company. However, with a new parent taking over last year, TerraForm Power's issues appear to be in the rearview mirror. One evidence of this is that the company started paying dividends again this year, and now yields an attractive 7.1%.

The company anticipates its payout to climb at a 5% to 8% annual pace over the next five years, powered by increasing cash flow from existing assets, high-return expansion projects, and value-creating acquisitions. In fact, the company recently made its first deal under its new ownership, buying a European renewable power platform in a deal that will boost cash flow 24% per share. That transaction increases the likelihood that TerraForm can achieve its dividend growth targets, which could give it the power to outperform in the coming years.

Their forecasts hint at future success

Companies that grow their dividends have historically outperformed other stocks over the long term. That future seems likely with this trio of energy stocks since all of them expect to up their payouts over the next few years. That income with upside could make them excellent stocks for long-term investors. 

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.