Photo credit: Consolidated Edison   

The polar vortex was hard on most Americans. Our heating systems were running at full capacity most of the winter. While that proved to be a challenge to utilities like Consolidated Edison (NYSE:ED), FirstEnergy (NYSE:FE) and Exelon (NYSE:EXC), all three weathered that storm with ease. That being said, each company has a different storm looming on the horizon that must be overcome in order to deliver strong returns for investors.

A devastating blow
In its first quarter earnings report Consolidated Edison noted that its "employees performed admirably during a colder than normal winter that adversely affected customers' energy supply costs." The company continues to implement storm hardening improvements, which is lessening the weather's impact on its business. That's working as Consolidated Edison saw a $10 million, or $0.04 per share, improvement in its net income thanks to weather related impacts.

That being said, a bigger storm is looming over Consolidated Edison. The tragic gas explosion in East Harlem is still being investigated. The company noted in that same earnings release that it was working with the National Transportation Safety Board to determine the cause of the explosion. If Consolidated Edison is found to be at fault in the explosion it could really impact the company's ability to deliver strong returns to investors as the company could face a hefty fine as well as be forced to make a number of unplanned capital improvements to its system. It's a storm that investors need to watch very closely as it's one no one ever wants to see happen again.

Challenging conditions
Meanwhile, FirstEnergy also performed well during the cold winter months. While the company missed first quarter earnings estimates by two pennies, the weather wasn't the cause of the miss. In fact, the company's total distribution deliveries rose 6% due to the colder than normal winter. Its residential customers used 11% more electricity than the previous first quarter while commercial customers used 6% more energy.

Photo credit: FirstEnergy Corp. 

The problem in the quarter was the company's competitive energy segment. Higher power costs, increased customer demand and other increased costs caused commodity margins to decrease significantly. It's a trend the company doesn't see reversing this year, which is why FirstEnergy lowered its full-year outlook. The company now sees full-year operating earnings coming in at $2.40 to $2.65 per share, which is below the previous guidance range of $2.45 to $2.85 per share. The company noted that it's seeing extremely challenging market conditions in its competitive business, which is a storm that FirstEnergy will need to weather through in order to deliver the returns its investors want to see.

This is a big deal
Finally, Exelon Corporation actually thrived on the polar vortex in the first quarter. The company noted in its press release that its "nuclear assets in particular contributed to grid reliability during the polar vortex." While the company did experience some added weather related costs from an ice storm in February, it experienced favorable weather gains due to the colder than average winter.

Photo credit: Exelon  

That being said, Exelon is in the middle of a storm that it created when the company announced it was acquiring Pepco Holdings (UNKNOWN:POM.DL) for $6.8 billion. The all-cash deal came at about a 20% premium to Pepco Holdings' previous closing price and will add to Exelon's debt levels as well as add the burden of integrating another large acquisition to its plate. It's a deal that analysts view as only being a mild positive for the company, which has struggled to grow in recent years due to lower power prices. However, if the company can quickly integrate Pepco Holdings and the power market does improve then Exelon's storm will prove to be the easiest of the three to navigate.

Investor takeaway
Utility stocks are supposed to be boring dividend payers. That hasn't been the case for Consolidated Edison, FirstEnergy or Exelon this year as all three have had to weather fairly big storms. The ability of these companies to navigate past these storms will be a key in growing each company's dividend in the future. 

Matt DiLallo has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Exelon. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.