First Solar’s second quarter net income jumped 57 percent from a year ago, thanks to a new Malaysian plant and a strong demand for its solar panels in Europe.

The thin-film solar panel maker (NSDQ: FSLR) exceeded Wall Street’s expectations when it posted a net income of 69.7 million, or 85 cents per share, for the second quarter, compared with $44.4 million, or 58 cents per share from the same period in 2007. First Solar reported a net income of $46.6 million, or 57 cents per share, for the first quarter of 2008.

The company, based in Tempe, Ariz., brought in $267 million in revenue for the second quarter, more than tripling the revenue of $77.2 million from the year-ago period. The company generated $196.9 million in revenue for the first quarter of 2008.

Analysts polled by Thomson Financial had expected $46.67 million in net income, or 58 cents per share, on $216.9 million in revenue, excluding any one-time charges.

Investors were pleased with First Solar’s performance, pushing the stock price up by nearly 6 percent to reach $302.1 per share in after-market trading. The company released its earnings after the market closed.

The solar panel maker has continued to demonstrate its much-heralded ability to make a good profit by expanding its manufacturing capacity, which allows the company to reduce production costs and the sale prices of its solar panels. The new manufacturing complex has also enabled the company to fill backlog orders more quickly.

First Solar CEO Michael Ahearn said the start of its new Malaysian manufacturing complex in the second quarter helped boost sales. The company set out to build four plants at its Malaysian facility.

“The Malaysian plant is progressing better than planned,” Ahearn said in a conference call with analysts.

The company built two of its four plants at its Malaysian facility, though it doesn’t expect to start generating revenues from its second plant until the forth quarter. Ahearn said it’s too early for him to discuss the construction of the third and fourth plants.

First Solar expects to do more business in Italy, where some of its customers have begun to build power plants, Ahearn said. France also looks promising, he said. The French government is considering an expansion of its feed-in tariff program, which requires utilities to buy solar power through long-term contracts at rates set by the government.

Popular in Europe, feed-in tariff programs in Germany and Spain have created a boom for solar power plant developers and their components suppliers in Europe, the United States and Asia. The solar electric rates are supposed to fall each year until they match those of conventional power, however, prompting solar power companies to rush to build plants before lower rates are in place.

Germany recently reduced its solar incentives (see Solar Prices Set in Germany). Spain’s current incentives will expire by the end of September, and the government is still drafting new rules. The country’s national energy commission just agreed on a new set of rates, which still have to be approved by the parliament and the prime minister to become law (see Spanish Energy Commission Votes to Shrink Solar Incentives).

Ahearn said the reduced solar electric rates in Germany would “make economics more challenging to the industry in the next year.” The new feed-in tariffs in Spain, whatever they might be, would have a limited impact on the company in the near future, he added.

Although Europe is the main market for First Solar, the company has placed an increasing effort on making more money from the U.S. market, Ahearn said.

The panel maker is gunning for the California market in particular, because the state is requiring its utilities to buy 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2010. First Solar recently won a contract to build the first 2 megawatts of a 250-megawatt project for Southern California Edison.

The 250-megawatt project would place solar panels on 65 million square feet of roof space on commercial buildings. First Solar began installing the panels earlier this month (see First Solar Scores SCE Panel Bid).