Remember those arguments about decoupling? That China and other fast-growing nations wouldn't catch a cold if America sneezed?

That pet theory's been pretty much knocked off its pedestal. Investors are now desperate to find a bright spot amid this gloomy market -- some area that's safe from credit contagion. Yesterday, SunPower (NASDAQ:SPWRA) made an at least half-convincing argument that solar is just such a sector. Yes, even in the U.S. of A(rmageddon).

Here at home, the dominant factor in favor of solar fervor is the recent eight-year extension of the investment tax credit. Utilities get these tax benefits for the first time, making power plant-scale projects like the ones SunPower has signed with PG&E (NYSE:PCG) all the more attractive.

At the residential level, you might think that the last thing Joe the Plumber is going to be shelling out for is a $20,000 solar installation. Indeed, if solar panels were a more common discretionary item, they would be taking a hit along with the Brunswick (NYSE:BC) boats and the Coach (NYSE:COH) handbags. The thing is, this is such a nascent business that while the marginal buyer may be reluctant today, there is still "unprecedented demand," in the company's words.

We shall see how this shakes out over the next few quarters. For now, SunPower is storming ahead with typically strong results. In the third quarter, sales were up 61%, and per-share earnings were up from $0.10 to $0.26. Gross margins came in strong at a touch over 27%. Most pleasing of all was SunPower's free cash flow generation -- a company first.

Fools who have yet to take the plunge on solar -- including yours truly -- may be facing an interesting opportunity at this juncture. The stocks of folks like Energy Conversion Devices (NASDAQ:ENER) and Evergreen Solar (NASDAQ:ESLR) have sold off very hard. And yet, we see the most solid of the bunch really beginning to hit their stride. SunPower is one of the sultans of solar, and at sub-$50, I'm taking a shine to it.

I've picked SunPower to beat the market over the next year over in Motley Fool CAPS. Weigh in with your own outlook right here.

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Fool contributor Toby Shute is active in CAPS under the name TMFSmashy, but he doesn't have a position in any company mentioned. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.