* Says European business will return to profit by year-end
* Stock up nearly 18 percent
* Company to give FY outlook at May analyst meeting (Adds details on U.S., Japanese, European demand, analyst meeting)
May 2 (Reuters) - SunPower Corp, which makes solar panels and builds projects with them, on Thursday posted better-than-expected quarterly results due to strong demand for solar energy in North America and Japan, sending its shares up more than 17 percent.
SunPower is building several large solar power plants in California and said demand from residential customers for its panels is strong. Like others in the solar installation industry, the company is benefiting from the growing popularity of solar leasing, which allows homeowners to pay a monthly fee for solar panels rather than make a large upfront investment.
The San Jose, California, company, which is majority-owned by France's Total SA, also said the Japanese market is robust. Toshiba Corp and Sharp Corp accounted for about a quarter of its first-quarter shipments.
SunPower also said its European business will return to profitability by the end of this year. The solar industry has been grappling with a global oversupply of panels and falling subsidies in Europe, a combination that has sent prices on solar products into a tailspin in the last two years and hammered industry profit.
SunPower's panels command a price premium in the market because they are the most efficient in the industry at transforming sunlight into electricity.
SunPower reported a first-quarter net loss of $54.7 million, or 46 cents per share, compared with a loss of $74.5 million, or 67 cents per share, a year ago.
Excluding one-time items, it earned 22 cents per share. On that basis, analysts had been expecting earnings of 6 cents per share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Revenue rose to $635.4 million from $494.1 million a year ago. Analysts had been expecting revenue of $507.73 million, on average, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
The results came out before the close of trading on Thursday. SunPower shares closed 17.6 percent higher at $15.29 on the Nasdaq.
SunPower said it will provide its financial forecast for the second quarter and fiscal-year 2013 at an analyst meeting in New York on May 15. (Reporting by Nichola Groom in Los Angeles; editing by Matthew Lewis)