The Washington Post recently published an article, Government-subsidized green light bulb carries costly price tag, which is a thinly veiled attack piece on clean energy technologies and policies. It provided incomplete and misleading information on numerous fronts, with the main argument succinctly wrapped up here:
“How the expensive bulb won a $10 million government prize meant to foster energy-efficient affordability is one of the curiosities that arise as the country undergoes a massive, mandated turnover from traditional incandescent lamps to more energy-efficient ones.”
As someone who consulted on emerging energy efficiency technologies for a number of years, and LED lighting in particular, I’d like to chime in.
First, consider the “L Prize” award. The government awarded $10 million to Philips for being the first company to meet their criteria for developing a commercially available, high-quality, long-lived, highly-efficient (and, as it turns out, Wisconsin-made!) light bulb. What the article doesn’t mention is that the $10 million prize leveraged many times that amount in private research from multiple companies throughout the country. The article also doesn’t mention that the prize helped accelerate the development of a technology that has the potential to save Americans billions – with a ‘B’ – of dollars in the future.
The “massive, mandated turnover” that the article talks about is simply an echo of recent attacks on a piece of energy legislation passed by George W. Bush in 2007, which The Washington Post labels a “ban on inefficient incandescent light bulbs.” By claiming that the legislation essentially forces consumers to go out and buy only certain types of lights, the article attempts to play into big-government fears. In reality, that legislation is a performance standard that requires manufacturers to make their lights work better – including new, improved incandescent bulbs. The article doesn’t mention the facts that the “ban” doesn’t actually reduce consumer choice, or that all of the major bulb manufacturers have come out in support of the new requirements.
And that new L-Prize light bulb? Is the cost as absurd as the article makes it out to be? In a word: no.
As stated numerous times, the light will initially cost $50. Yes, it seems like a lot when compared to an old-fashioned 60-watt bulb that costs $1. On that note, it’s certainly worth considering that the bulbs have only been on shelves for a matter of weeks and are the most cutting-edge lights available. Like the latest smartphone, the prices will come down as the technology progresses and more challengers come along.
Putting that aside and using the higher prices that you’ll pay for being the first on the block to own the newest lights, they’re not as expensive as they seem. First, consider the fact that an L Prize bulb will last over 10 years. Since you’d need to buy thirty 60-watt bulbs in that time, that’s $30 in saved replacement costs alone. But the real savings are in energy use: The L Prize bulb cuts energy costs by over 80%. If you use your lights 8 hours a day, that’s annual savings of around $15 per light.
The only mention of this in the article is buried in a graphic that has to be clicked on to be read, in which the Post calculates that over 10 years, using traditional bulbs will cost a total $228, and the L Prize bulb will cost $83 – that’s savings of $145.
(Side note: In case you were someone who gets a hard copy of the Washington Post, the article is even more misleading. In tiny print at the bottom of the graphic is noted “This is a corrected version of a graphic that appeared in the paper on March 9.” As pointed out on the blog ThinkProgress, the original article listed the L Prize bulb as more expensive over time than incandescent lights, because they calculated costs with electricity at one cent per kWh instead of the national average of over ten times that. If anyone knows how to get that deal, let me know!)
We shouldn’t disregard LEDs as too expensive. They can be good, affordable replacements if you can get over the initial investment cost. We need to figure out ways to cut down that up-front expense, which will help people to get over the cost hurdle and start saving money. Incentive programs like those from Focus on Energy could help, as could innovative financial programs that help people spread out the initial cost.
The other take away from this article, at least for me, is that there’s a continuing need to fight to keep cynical politics from getting in the way of technologies, like LEDs, that simultaneously represent environmental and economic progress for our state and our nation.