The best dividend stocks have one thing in common. They've increased their payouts like clockwork for decades. Those steadily growing income streams tend to add up over time, enabling these companies to deliver superior total returns.

Three dividend stocks in this elite category of multi-decade dividend growth are utility Consolidated Edison (ED 0.29%), Canadian energy infrastructure company Enbridge (ENB -0.71%), and real estate investment trust (REITRealty Income (O 0.28%). Here's a closer look at these world-class dividend stocks.

A money bag with the word dividends written on it.

Image source: Getty Images.

On the road to dividend royalty

Consolidated Edison is creeping up on a major dividend milestone. The utility focused on distributing electricity to the New York City region has increased its payout for 47 straight years. That puts it just three years shy of joining an elite group of dividend kings.

Consolidated Edison appears well on track to reach that rare distinction. The company currently expects to grow its earnings per share at a 4% to 6% annual pace over the next five years. Powering that forecast is the expected recovery and growth of the New York City market and the expansion of its world-class solar energy business, where it's the second-largest solar producer in North America and seventh biggest globally. Consolidated has ample financial flexibility to fund the capital projects needed to continue growing its earnings, thanks to its investment-grade balance sheet and relatively conservative dividend payout ratio. It should remain a world-class dividend stock for years to come.

Plenty of fuel to keep growing

Enbridge has increased its dividend in each of the past 26 years. If it weren't a Canadian company, it would qualify as a Dividend Aristocrat.  

Even more impressive has been Enbridge's dividend growth rate. The company has expanded its payout at a 10% compound annual rate during the last 26 years. That's a superior track record, especially in the volatile energy industry. Enbridge's supercharged dividend growth has given it the power to generate stellar total returns of 15% annually over the last 25 years, well ahead of the S&P 500 and its industry peers.

Enbridge should have plenty of fuel to keep growing its dividend in the future. The company currently has a multi-billion-dollar expansion program under way that should help deliver 5% to 7% cash flow per share growth through 2023. It has plenty of growth potential beyond that time horizon, especially as it continues to shift its investments into infrastructure projects supporting lower carbon fuel sources. Enbridge also has plenty of financial flexibility to fund this growth thanks to its investment-grade balance sheet and relatively conservative dividend payout ratio. As a result, it should have plenty of power to keep growing its payout.

Living up to its name

Realty Income has been an outstanding income stock over the years. The REIT has paid 610 consecutive monthly dividends since it started operations 52 years ago. While it has only been a public company since 1994, the REIT has increased its payout 110 times since then, including in each of the last 94 straight quarters. That means it has raised its payout in all of its 27 years as a public company. Overall, Realty Income has grown its payout at a 4.4% compound annual clip since its IPO. That's helped it generate a 15.2% yearly average compound total return as a public company. 

Realty Income should have no problem continuing to grow its payout. For starters, it has one of the best balance sheets in the REIT sector as it's only one of eight with A-rated credit. It also has a reasonably conservative dividend payout ratio. Those features give it the financial flexibility to continue acquiring new properties, which is the key to growing its cash flow and payout. 

Great dividend stocks to anchor your income portfolio

Consolidated Edison, Enbridge, and Realty Income have been exceptional dividend growth stocks over the years. They've all notched more than 25 consecutive years of increases, which should continue for the foreseeable future. That puts them in an elite class, making them great dividend stocks to buy and hold for the long haul.