It's easy to love a sector when it returns 14 times the market. That's exactly what happened in 2020 when the average stock in the Invesco Solar ETF (NYSEMKT:TAN) surged over 230% compared to the market's 16% return. However, many of the pure-play solar stocks responsible for the ETF's meteoric rise are now trading at high valuations -- making now the perfect time to think outside the box. 

We asked some of our contributors for their best solar stocks to buy now. They identified three dividend stocks: utility giant NextEra Energy (NYSE:NEE), copper mining kingpin Southern Copper Corporation (NYSE:SCCO), and renewable energy operator Clearway Energy (NYSE:CWEN) (NYSE:CWEN.A). Here's why these three dividend stocks are a good way to invest in solar energy right now. 

A plant engineer tending to solar panels in the field.

Image source: Getty Images.

Generating solar and wind energy on a massive scale 

Daniel Foelber (NextEra Energy): Increasing revenue and earnings. A stable and growing dividend. Industry tailwinds. NextEra Energy has it all. The world's largest supplier of solar and wind energy has been ramping its renewable spending. Its current renewable capacity is 28 gigawatts (GW) -- including its signed backlog. The company is allocating as much as $28 billion toward new renewable projects between 2019 and 2022. The result has been over 6.5 million new solar panels in the last three years and 30 million planned panel installations by 2030. But that's not all. NextEra is a huge player in wind energy as well. In fact, new wind energy projects comprise over half of the company's renewable backlog. They accounted for over 80% of its renewable contracts in 2019 and 2020 (as of the end of the third quarter of 2020).

Despite record-high spending, NextEra continues to deliver impressive results. The company's main two businesses are Florida Power & Light (FPL) and Gulf Power. They generated over 70% of NextEra's revenue for the nine months ended Sept. 30 2020. NextEra Energy Resources (NEER) is the company's clean energy segment and is investing in solar and wind projects across America. Between the fourth quarter of 2020 and 2024, NEER's renewable investments are expected to top $8 billion. But around 80% of this spending is expected to occur by the end of 2021. Being the largest utility in Florida is expensive. But this year, NextEra plans on spending more money on renewables than it costs to maintain Florida Power & Light's existing assets. Lower spending from 2022 to 2024 should help drive earnings. NextEra is forecasting 2021 earnings per share of around $2.47 and then growing earnings at 6% to 8% per year in 2022 and 2023.

Even during this period of high spending, NextEra has consistently raised its dividend. The company is now a Dividend Aristocrat, a distinguished achievement given to members of the S&P 500 that have increased their annual dividends for at least 25 consecutive years. In sum, NextEra Energy is a balanced way to invest in the long-term growth of solar and wind energy while collecting quarterly dividends. 

TAN Chart

TAN data by YCharts

More renewable energy means more copper

Lee Samaha (Southern Copper Corporation): If you like renewable energy, and in particular solar power, then chances are you will like copper, too. Widely known as the most economically sensitive commodity, copper is used across the industrial economy, but it's the 27% of demand that comes from electrical networking that is interesting here.

Simply put, more electricity generation from wind and solar power means more demand for copper for use in the transmission, distribution, and storage of electricity. Moreover, new renewable energy projects will need copper wiring in order to connect to the grid. According to the Copper Development Association, generating electricity from renewable energy "has a copper usage intensity that is typically four to six times higher than it is for fossil fuels."

That's music to the ears of a copper miner like Southern Copper and also good news for investors attracted to its current 2.9% dividend yield. To be clear, Southern Copper's dividend payout isn't set in stone; instead, it's a function of the company's cash position and cash generation. In other words, it's likely to go up and down largely in concert with the price of copper.

As such, buying the stock for its dividend is basically taking a view on higher copper prices and demand in the future. That might a good thing in a world increasingly willing to invest in renewable energy.

Here comes the sun-centric stock you've been waiting for

Scott Levine (Clearway Energy): It's little surprise that investors are turning their attention to solar stocks these days considering how the market embraced them in 2020. Moreover, with the favorable treatment that the solar industry received in the recent stimulus bill and President Joe Biden making good on his promise to rejoin the Paris Agreement this week, there appears to be widespread enthusiasm for renewable energy. Thus, many people believe solar stocks are poised for even greater gains in the coming years. Pair this belief with the knowledge that dividend-paying stocks often outperform non-dividend-paying stocks, and it appears that Clearway Energy is an ideal choice for investors looking to grab some yield while waiting for the solar industry to flourish.

While Clearway Energy's portfolio includes a variety of asset types, solar power stands out. It represents 1.32 GW of capacity, or 21% of the company's overall capacity, as of the end of Q3 2020. And it seems that solar will occupy an increasingly important role in the future. Of the 9.4 GW of projects in the company's pipeline, solar projects (including distributed and utility scale) represent about 4.4 GW, or 47%.

In response to the PG&E bankruptcy and the associated risks to Clearway Energy, the company reduced its dividend in February 2019 in order to ensure its financial health.

CWEN Dividend Chart

CWEN Dividend data by YCharts.

Over the past year, however, Clearway has returned its focus to rewarding shareholders. Most recently, the company had raised its quarterly payout 1.8% to $0.318 per share for the fourth quarter, and forecasting a sunny 2021, management noted on the Q3 2020 conference call that it "continues to see dividend per share growth at the upper end of our 5% to 8% long-term growth rate through 2021."

The extension of tax credits from the recent stimulus bill and President Biden's rejoining of the Paris Agreement are merely two factors contributing to the belief that the solar industry is poised for significant growth -- something from which Clearway Energy and its investors could surely prosper.