* Loss per share of 20 cts vs Wall St view of 15 ct loss
* Shipments, revenues top forecasts
* Shares climb 13.5 pct (Adds analyst, CEO comment, background, updates shares)
June 5 (Reuters) - Chinese solar equipment maker JA Solar Holdings Co Ltd posted a bigger-than-expected first quarter loss, but managed to hold its gross margins as shipments topped its forecast, boosting its shares more than 13 percent.
Solar manufacturers have struggled as prices for the panels that turn sunlight into electricity have tumbled sharply since the beginning of 2011 amid a glut of inventory.
That has shrunk profit margins across the industry, forcing dozens of companies in China, Europe and the United States to shut their doors.
JA Solar, one of China's biggest solar makers, said its gross margin in the first quarter rose to 2.1 percent, even with new duties to ship products into the United States. That margin was more than four times higher than its fourth-quarter level.
With JA Solar's share price hovering near all-time lows, even that thin margin was enough to drive investors betting the stock could break below 89 cents per share bottom hit on Monday and Friday.
"They seem to have maintained their gross margin," said Mahesh Sanganeria, analyst with RBC Capital Markets. "At 90 cents, if you're short you'd better cover."
The company said it shipped 336 megawatts of equipment in the quarter, helped by strong demand in Germany and Italy, the world's two biggest solar markets. It had previously said it expected to ship between 320-350 MW of equipment.
Incentives in both those countries are set to decline later this year, but shipments should stay strong for the coming months, the company said.
"We are confident that Italy and Germany can continue to be strong drivers of demand in the medium term," Peng Fang, chief executive officer, told an analysts' conference call.
INTO THE RED
Net loss for the quarter was $39.8 million, or 20 cents per American Depositary Share, compared with a year-earlier profit of $71.8 million, or 41 cents per ADS.
Analysts on average had expected a loss of 15 cents per ADS, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Revenue fell 54 percent to $254 million, but topped analysts' average forecast of $233.9 million.
The recent move by the United States to impose import duties on solar equipment from China had cost it a modest $2.9 million during the quarter, since it had moved to insulate itself from the tariffs months ago, the company said.
Shares of the company rose 13.5 percent to $1.01 on the NASDAQ, bringing their losses so far this year to 25 percent. (Reporting By Matt Daily; Editing by Gerald E. McCormick, Lisa Von Ahn and Sofina Mirza-Reid)