For many energy-powered dividend stocks, 2020 was a challenging year due to the downturn in the oil market because of the COVID-19 outbreak. That market turbulence caused several energy companies to slash or suspend their payouts to preserve cash. However, some dividends proved their durability this past year as they continued growing. For many of those, that upward trend should continue in 2021.

Three where that seems likely are Atlantic Sustainable Infrastructure (NASDAQ:AY)Brookfield Infrastructure (NYSE:BIP)(NYSE:BIPC), and NextEra Energy Partners (NYSE:NEP). That makes them stand out as some of the top dividend stocks in the energy sector to buy this January.

A bag on money next to stacks of coins.

Image source: Getty Images.

The steady march higher should continue

Atlantica Sustainable Infrastructure's dividend has steadily marched higher since the company reset it in 2016 following the separation from its initial sponsor, which ran into some financial trouble. It has raised its payout more than a dozen times since then, including a 2.4% increase in 2020. With that most recent increase, Atlantica now yields 4.6%. That steady dividend growth has paid off for investors as Atlantica has generated an average annualized total return of more than 20.4% over the oast five years. That's well ahead of the S&P 500's 14.6% total annualized total return during that timeframe. 

More dividend growth seems likely in 2021. Powering that view is the steady string of investments the company has secured over the past year. It closed or announced $322 million of deals through the third quarter, including a $290 million investment to buy out a partner's interest in a U.S. solar energy asset. Meanwhile, it reached a deal with its new sponsor, Algonquin Power & Utilities (NYSE:AQN), to acquire a solar project in Colombia for $20 million when it reaches commercial operations in the middle of next year. When combined with the company's current deal pipeline -- it expects to invest $200 million to $300 million per year -- these recent transactions should give Atlantica the power to continue growing its high-yielding dividend in 2021.  

A big year awaits

Brookfield Infrastructure has been a rock-solid dividend stock over the years. The diversified infrastructure operator has increased its payout every year since its formation in 2009, growing it at an 11% compound annual rate overall. That includes a 7% raise in early 2020, which pushed its yield up close to 4%. Brookfield's steadily rising dividend has also given it the power to outperform the S&P 500. It has generated an average annual return of 18% since its inception more than a decade ago compared to 10% for the broader market. 

Brookfield should have no problem keeping that growth streak alive in 2021. While the company's earnings didn't increase that much in 2020 because of the impact of the pandemic, they're on track to surge in 2021 as those headwinds fade, and it gets a boost from some needle-moving investments, including a stake in a major LNG export facility. With a strong balance sheet and conservative dividend payout ratio, Brookfield should have no trouble achieving its target of delivering annual dividend growth in the range of 5% to 9%.

A fully powered dividend growth engine

NextEra Energy Partners has also done an excellent job growing its dividend over the years. The clean energy company has increased its payout every single quarter since its IPO in 2014. It has boosted it by 15% over the past year, pushing the yield up to 3.6%. NextEra Energy Partners' fast-growing payout has also powered market-beating total returns of 220% since its IPO, compared to 125% for the S&P 500. 

More high-powered dividend growth seems inevitable in 2021. NextEra Energy Partners has already secured enough power to grow it by another 12% to 15% this year while maintaining a dividend payout ratio around its 80% target. It did that by making a few needle-moving acquisitions over the past several quarters that give it the cash flow visibility needed to support its high-powered dividend growth plan. Meanwhile, the company believes it has the opportunity set and funding flexibility to deliver dividend growth at that high rate through at least 2024.

Great dividend stocks to buy this month

Atlantica Sustainable Infrastructure, Brookfield Infrastructure, and NextEra Energy Partners have long histories of steadily increasing their dividends. Those growth streaks should continue in 2021, which, when combined with their above-average yields, makes them great stocks to buy this month. That combination of yield and growth could give this trio the power to continue outperforming the market in the coming year.

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.