It Took $50 Million In Taxpayer Subsidies To Create A $50 Replacement For A $1 Light Bulb

I posted about this yesterday, but it’s so absurd it’s worth posting again (if only to shamelessly rip off Mark Perry’s headline).

The U.S. government last year announced a $10 million award, dubbed the “L Prize,” for any manufacturer that could create a “green” but affordable light bulb.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu said the prize would spur industry to offer the costly bulbs, known as LEDs, at prices “affordable for American families.” There was also a “Buy America” component. Portions of the bulb would have to be made in the United States.

Now the winning bulb is on the market.

The price is $50.

Retailers said the bulb, made by Philips, is likely to be too pricey to have broad appeal. Similar LED bulbs are less than half the cost.

To be fair, these light bulbs are selling on Amazon right now for $25.70 each (plus shipping). I have no idea if that’s a profitable price or if there’s some sort of subsidy involved to promote them, but that’s still a lot of money given that the incandescents I’m using right now are costing me less than $1 each. I replace them about once every six months in the high-traffic areas of our house (the halls, kitchen and living room where they’re used a lot), so in order for one of these bulbs to be worth it they would have to last for about 15 years and/or provide about $24 in energy savings over their lifespan per bulb.

Color me extremely skeptical.

But maybe we can do the math on these bulbs to make them worth it. Maybe they’re a big improvement in cost and performance over incandescent bulbs. If that’s true, why not leave the incandescents on the market and let these LED bulbs compete? Rather than having politicians and lobbyists and political commentators wrangling over whether or not these bulbs are worth it, why not let the individual consumer be the judge?

My guess is because those backing the bulbs, from the rent-seeking companies to the meddlesome politicians, know that competition wouldn’t end well.

Rob Port

Rob Port is the editor of In 2011 he was a finalist for the Watch Dog of the Year from the Sam Adams Alliance and winner of the Americans For Prosperity Award for Online Excellence. In 2013 the Washington Post named SAB one of the nation's top state-based political blogs, and named Rob one of the state's best political reporters.

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