Hugh Pickens writes "Although global demand for solar power is still growing — about 8% more solar panels will be installed this year compared with 2010 — bankruptcies, plummeting stock prices and crushing debt loads are calling into question the viability of the solar energy industry that since the 1970s has been counted on to advance the world into a new energy age. Only a handful of manufacturers are now profitable in the face of too much capacity, which has contributed to a plunge in prices as government subsidies have been curbed. Prices for solar panels started 2011 near $1.60 per watt, but a buildup of inventory forced manufacturers into a fire sale toward the end of the second quarter that has pushed prices to near $1 per watt now. 'The prices that we're seeing today are likely not covering manufacturing costs in many cases,' says Ralph Romero. With at least seven solar-panel manufacturers filing for bankruptcy or insolvency in the last several months and six of the 10 largest publicly traded companies making solar components reporting losses in the third quarter, public-market investors are punishing the solar sector, sending shares down nearly 57% this year. Although winners are expected to emerge eventually, the question is how much more carnage there will be before that happens. 'The fact of the matter is, nobody really knows which solar companies will be pushed out of business or be forced to merge,' writes industry analyst Rodolfo Avalos. 'Nobody also knows how long it will take for the solar industry to improve even when the forecasted solar global demand for the next 5-10 years is quite promising.'"