SunPower reported Thursday a five-fold jump in net income in the fourth quarter and a huge surge in revenue, and it expects revenue and profits to grow in 2009.

The mood though, is far from euphoric as analysts and company executives are still worried about the fragile state of the economy.  SunPower, in fact, announced it laid off about 6 percent of its non-manufacturing employees, or 1.2 percent of its overall global workforce.

The San Jose, Calif.-based solar panel maker brought in $29.55 million, or 35 cents per share in the fourth quarter, compared with $4.88 million, or 6 cents per share, from the year-ago period. A strong U.S. dollar against the Korean won resulted in a 7 cent per share gain, the company said. 

Overall, the company generated a net income of $92.29 million, or $1.09 per share in 2008, well over $9.20 million in net income, or 11 cents per share in 2007.

Revenue for the four quarter rose nearly 79 percent to nearly $401 million from $224.34 million from the same quarter in 2007. For 2008, SunPower generated $1.43 billion in revenue, up roughly 85 percent from $774.79 million in 2007.

The company wouldn't provide a quarterly forecast, citing difficulties in gauging market demand during the downturn. SunPower's new chief financial officer, Dennis Arriola, said the economic downturn will likely make its mark on SunPower's finances in "the next few quarters."

For 2009, the company expects to generate $1.6 billion to $2 billion in revenue, and $1.40 to $1.90 per share in earnings. SunPower, which is building a third cell factory, located in Malaysia, expects to have more than 450 megawatts in production capacity this year. The company has two cell factories in the Philippines. 

While numbers that like might have made investors cheer in years past, the mood now is dour. Before SunPower announced its earnings, several equity analysts questioned whether SunPower could stay competitive in the short-term given that the company has positioned itself as a maker of highly efficient – and hence more expensive – solar panels. Given the financial market crisis, customers might turn to cheaper alternatives, analysts said (see Wall Street Feeling Downbeat on Solar).

The company's quarterly numbers did beat Wall Street's expectation, sending its shares up in after-hour trading. The company's Class A shares grew nearly 12 percent to reach $32 per share in after-market trading. The Class B shares went up nearly 9 percent to reach $23.90 per share.

SunPower CEO Tom Werner told analysts during a conference call that the company plans to invest more in the business of building large-scale power plants for utilities in the United States. The U.S. utility market is expected to grow 50 percent annually over the next five years, Arriola said.

More than half of the states are requiring utilities to buy more renewable power, and President Obama has vowed to double the country's renewable power production in three years.

"This is a time of transition for the company. We are moving rapidly into the utility power plant market," Werner said.

SunPower is developing a plant for Pacific Gas and Electric in California and Florida Power and Light (see PG&E to Buy 800MW From OptiSolar, SunPower). The two projects are on track, SunPower executives said.

The company is working on trimming expenses by using thinner silicon wafers and buying silicon at cheaper prices, Werner said. SunPower has seen the raw material prices fall by 10 percent in 2008 from 2007, and it expects to see at least another 10 percent drop in 2009, Werner added

The company also recently laid off about 60 people out of its 1,000-person, non-manufacturing workforce, Werner said. The company employed roughly 5,000 people overall before the layoffs.