Energy chief: We aren't asking Americans to spend $50 for a light bulb

Energy Secretary Steven Chu defended his department’s investments in energy-efficient light bulbs Tuesday amid growing GOP criticism.

Republicans have pounced on a Washington Post story that notes the Energy Department awarded its $10 million “L Prize” to Philips for an LED light bulb that retails for $50. The GOP has criticized the Energy Department for backing such an expensive light bulb, arguing it’s too pricey for the average consumer.

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But Chu, during a Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee hearing Tuesday, said the department backed the product as a first step in developing cheaper energy-efficient light bulbs over time.

“The idea of that light bulb contest was to … get a light bulb that eventually Americans can afford,” Chu said, adding that the prize was intended to “stimulate future development.”

“Nobody expects to pay $60 for a light bulb and quite candidly, if you’re filling your house with light bulbs like that, they should be part of your will.”

Chu said LED light bulbs have a number of important uses because they can last for as many as 20,000 hours. The light bulbs make economic sense for use in office buildings and traffic lights, he said.

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and other Republicans criticized Chu on Tuesday over the light bulb prize in an attempt to paint the administration as out of touch with the average consumer.

“Do you think a $50 light bulb is affordable for the American family?” Barrasso asked Chu.

“We are not asking American families to spend $40 or $50 for a light bulb,” Chu said. “The prize was intended to incentivize innovative technologies.”

Republicans have long blasted the Energy Department over its efforts to incentivize the use of more energy-efficient light bulbs. The GOP has trained its fire on a 2007 energy law that requires traditional incandescent light bulbs to be 30 percent more efficient starting this year. 

Conservatives like Rush Limbaugh and Republicans in Congress have tried to overturn the provision, casting it as an egregious example of federal overreach.

Republicans often describe the standards as a “light bulb ban,” arguing that the rules would greatly restrict consumer choice by pushing out traditional incandescent bulbs in favor of more expensive, but more efficient, LED (light emitting diode) and CFL (compact fluorescent light) bulbs.

The standards do not ban incandescent bulbs, but instead require them to be more efficient. While more efficient light bulbs are often more expensive at the point of sale, experts say they save consumers money on their electricity bills over the long term.