There hasn’t been a lot of good news in the solar energy business for the past couple of years, but SunPower Corp. (NASDAQ: SPWR) has really turned it around since the beginning of the year. Shares have risen more than 140% year-to-date, about triple the rise is the share price for First Solar Inc. (NASDAQ: FSLR) and more than double the hikes at Canadian Solar Inc. (NASDAQ: CSIQ) and MEMC Electronic Materials Inc. (NYSE: WFR).
Except for Canadian Solar — which, despite its name, is a Chinese firm — the majority of news from Chinese solar energy firms has been somewhere between bad and awful. Suntech Power Holdings Co. Ltd. (NYSE: STP) has filed for bankruptcy, LDK Solar Co. Ltd. (NYSE: LDK) has missed a debt repayment, and the list could go on.
Analyst upgrades, including one today from R.W. Baird, to ‘outperform’ are pushing SunPower’s shares higher. The estimated earnings per share (EPS) for the first quarter have risen by $0.15 a share, from a net loss of $0.09 to a profit of $0.06 per share. SunPower has beat EPS estimates in each of the last four quarters and posted a profit in each of the last three quarters.
SunPower, which majority owned by France’s oil supermajor Total SA (NYSE: TOT) is expected to do well in the Japanese solar energy market as the country continues to rebuild its electricity generating infrastructure following the Fukushima disaster. At least one estimate puts Japan ahead of every other country except China in new solar installations during 2013. A generous subsidy in the form of a feed-in tariff for large projects and good incentives to encourage roof-top installations.
One possible brake on SunPower’s expected growth in Japan is stiff competition from Japanese solar panel makers Kyocera Corp. (NYSE: KYO) and Sharp Corp. Japanese consumers have shown a distinct preference for Japanese-made modules and panels.
Shares of SunPower are up 9% in the mid-afternoon today, at $13.24 after posting a new 52-week high of $13.90 earlier. The 52-week low is $3.71. Just a reminder: in 2011 Total paid $23.25 a share for its 60% stake in SunPower.