Suntech Power Holdings, the large Chinese solar panel maker, raised its revenue and manufacturing output estimates for the fourth quarter and 2008 overall today, although the overall picture calls for hard times ahead (see Suntech Laid Off 10, Employees Took Long Holiday Break).

Now, the company expects to post revenue of $405 million to $420 million for the quarter that ended in December, up from earlier estimates of $345 million to $360 million. For the year, revenue will come to $1.91 billion to $1.93 billion, higher than the earlier $1.87 billion estimate.

Suntech said it expects to ship 453 to 496 megawatts worth of solar panels in 2008, slightly higher at the top end than the 490- megawatt estimate given in November. Suntech will release official numbers when it announces earnings on Feb. 18.

Although that's a good sign for the solar industry, it has to be taken in context. At the end of the year, Suntech cut 800 of its roughly 9,000 employees, as previously reported. Today, it announced it will halt plans to hire 2,000 more employees.

In December, CEO Zhengrong Shi also said that an oversupply of panels in the world market would likely lead to a 25 percent to 30 percent drop in Suntech panel prices in 2009.

Suntech's factories are running at around 50 percent to 60 percent capacity.

The decline in solar panel prices in fact has already started to take its toll. Suntech said today that gross margin for the fourth quarter – that one above with the greater-than-expected revenue – will come to -1 percent to 2 percent.

Five years ago, Suntech was an obscure company that only amounted to an asterisk in the market share rankings. Now it has 1 gigawatt of capacity and is one of the largest manufacturers in the world.