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Originally published Thursday, March 8, 2012 at 10:05 PM

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Government-backed light bulb carries a hefty price tag ($50)

The winning "green," affordable "L Prize" bulb is on the market. It costs $50.

The Washington Post

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WASHINGTON — 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.

The winning bulb is on the market.

The price: $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.

"I don't want to say it's exorbitant, but if a customer is only looking at the price, they could come to that conclusion," said Brad Paulsen, merchant for the light-bulb category at Home Depot, the largest U.S. seller of light bulbs.

How the expensive bulb won a $10 million government prize meant to foster energy-efficient affordability is one of the curiosities that arises as the country undergoes a massive, mandated turnover from traditional incandescent lamps to more energy-efficient ones.

Energy legislation signed by President George W. Bush in 2007 made it illegal to sell inefficient 100-watt incandescents this year; the sales of traditional 75-watt incandescents will be prohibited next year; 60-watt incandescents will go after that.

When replacing a bulb, consumers must now buy energy-efficient incandescents, compact fluorescent bulbs and LEDs, or light-emitting diode bulbs.

The L Prize was meant to ease this transition by enticing manufacturers to create affordable bulbs to replace the most common type, the traditional 60-watt bulb.

A Philips spokesperson declined to talk in detail about the bulb or its price because the product has yet to be formally launched. It is expected to hit stores within weeks and is available online.

But the spokesperson said the L Prize bulb costs more because, as the contest required, it is even more energy-efficient, running on 10 watts instead of 12.5 watts. It is also reportedly brighter, renders colors better and lasts longer.

Still, the contest set price goals. According to L Prize guidelines, manufacturers were "strongly encouraged to offer products at prices that prove cost-effective and attractive to buyers." The target retail price, including rebates from utilities, was to be $22 in the first year, $15 in the second year and $8 in the third year.

Energy Department officials defended the award, saying they expect the cost of the L Prize bulbs to drop over time.

Officials added that they are working with utilities to provide rebates for consumers. But existing rebates, which max out at about $10, are too small to take a big slice out of the $50 price tag. The typical 60-watt bulb, an old-fashioned energy hog, can cost as little as $1.

"Are there many consumers who will say a $50 bulb is affordable? I don't think so," said one retailer familiar with the new bulbs.

In many ways, the L Prize may have been irrelevant. Other manufacturers offer LED bulbs for far less than the L Prize bulb.

For example, at Home Depot, Lighting Science Group, under the EcoSmart label, offers a bulb for $23.97. It is assembled in Mexico. Another Philips LED bulb on sale costs $24.97. It was made in China.

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