The Washington Post's Bad Math Tarnishes Innovative Light Bulb

Blog ››› ››› SHAUNA THEEL

In a front page article on Friday, The Washington Post reported that a $50 LED light bulb manufactured in the U.S. by Philips had won the Department of Energy's L-Prize for using only 10 watts of energy to produce light as bright as a 60-watt incandescent bulb. But the Post completely obscured the consumer savings from the LED's energy efficiency, including in an infographic that had to be corrected because its math was wrong.

The graphic claimed we would be better off buying 30 incandescent bulbs over 10 years rather than one of the prize-winning bulbs:

Washington Post

But as several outlets pointed out, the Post greatly underestimated electricity rates. After correcting for this, the LED bulb that the Post called "costly" actually saves consumers a significant amount of money over time, as the corrected infographic shows:

Washington Post

Quite a difference.

Nowhere in the article did the Post make clear that people would save money overall by purchasing the LED instead of incandescent bulbs. This same inability to look beyond the up-front price tag and consider the actual operating costs is precisely why we waste so much money and energy through lighting.

Although The Washington Post ran the corrected graphic in today's paper, the misinformation lives on. Today, a Washington Times editorial falsely claims that the cost of the LED "eats up any long-term savings" from energy efficiency and lifespan, while others just completely ignored these savings.

The print edition of the Post article featured the sensational headline: "Affordability award goes to a $50 light bulb." But the L-Prize is not an "affordability award," it is an award for innovation in energy efficiency that was created by George W. Bush's Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. In fact, Philips had already produced an 12.5 watt LED that you can buy for half the price of the L-Prize winner. Nevertheless, ABC News Radio and Investor's Business Daily copied the Post, calling it an "affordability prize." And again, if you're not considering operating costs, you're not really evaluating "affordability."

The Post never made clear that the L-Prize was a part of the Bush law. Fox Nation and Newsmax called it "Obama's 'Green' Light Bulb" and Rush Limbaugh declared "Nobody was unhappy with" inefficient incandescent light bulbs "except Obama and his buddies on the left." (Curiously, many of these same conservative outlets were previously claiming that consumers would be forced to buy only CFLs).

Unfortunately, low-quality clean energy reporting is becoming a pattern at the Washington Post. In September, the Post ran another front page story that featured fuzzy math, which was subsequently adopted by conservative media. That story assigned a high cost-per-job assessment of the Department of Energy's loan guarantee program that relied on the completely unrealistic assumption that every loan guarantee would default.

The Post also ran several editorials arguing against clean energy investments that left out important facts. Overall, the Post's reporting focuses on politics rather than energy policy, leaving their readers knowing more about what politicians are saying than what experts are saying.

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