In 2007, when Congress passed legislation that would gradually ban old-school incandescent light bulbs, it added a carrot to the pile of sticks: a $10 million prize to encourage the development of a cheap, green, domestic alternative to the dearly departed Edison model.
Five years later, that bulb is coming to a hardware store near you. It will cost you $50. The winner of the Department of Energy’s L Prize, an LED bulb from the North American arm of the Dutch company Philips, fails to meet many of the original prize specifications, including price and the amount of the bulb that is made in America. Meanwhile, a virtually identical Philips bulb manufactured abroad is available for about $25.
While a $10 million check to sell a slight variation on a product you were developing anyway seems like a pretty sweet deal, it’s actually chump change compared to the real prize: preferential treatment by federal buyers and other major players who are beholden to the feds, including the many utility companies offering subsidies to customers who purchase the bulbs. This pot of gold at the end of the regulatory rainbow further reduced Philips’ incentive to keep prices low.
Rather than aim high, the Department of Energy set its sights squarely on a successful press conference at which the backs of congressmen, department officials, and energy executives could be patted and/or scratched. Mission accomplished.