Loose Bulbs

Department of Energy allowed light bulb manufacturer to skirt the rules in L Prize competition, documents suggest

AP Images
April 3, 2012

The Department of Energy awarded lighting giant Philips the $10 million L Prize despite the fact that the winning energy-efficient bulb failed to meet several contest criteria requirements, according to documents obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

Philips raised eyebrows when it debuted the winning bulb with a $50 price tag. That is far beyond the $22 cost recommended by the department, which is now working with utility companies to cut back on the upfront cost through rebates.

Department documents, however, cast doubt on whether the expensive LED bulb was even worthy of the prize.

Contest rules outlined by the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act required the winning L Prize bulb to shine at 900 lumens. A department report on 200 bulbs tested at two different facilities showed that nearly 70 bulbs failed to meet that standard, including more than 60 percent of the bulbs tested at one of the labs.

"The integrating sphere test from the [lab name redacted] shows that only 5 of 100 samples tested were below 900 lumens, but the [lab name redacted] integrating sphere testing shows 38 samples that were over 900lm and 62 were under," the report reads.

Despite Philips’ poor showing at the DOE lab tests, the department passed the bulb after receiving reassurance from the Dutch company.

"Philips data shows all tested lamps (2000) were above 900 lumens. Philips test and modeling data indicate…this criterion will be met in the production lamp," the report continued.

A department spokeswoman insisted that the bulbs met the requirements.

"The minimum output measured in this sample of 200 lamps was 873 lumens and the maximum was 967 lumens, a range consistent with normal manufacturing tolerances," the spokeswoman said. "The average light output of the 200 samples tested was 910 lumens."

One lighting expert, however, said the average is not a good indicator of LED performance.

"You have to be very careful in choosing LEDs because there is difficulty in uniformity," the expert said. "Having that many bulbs fail is suspect, especially if you plan on taking these bulbs to the market."

Philips spokeswoman Silvie Casanova said the L Prize bulb that will hit store shelves later this spring fulfills every L Prize requirement.

"I’m sure that in the test run, there might have been some that had some performance issues, but I’m sure the department is looking at a baseline of the bulbs overall performance," she said. "It does meet the requirements; we’re going through Energy Star testing right now" that will verify the company data.

Contest rules mandated that an entrant that failed to meet basic standards would be "terminated" and forced to return to square one of the competition.

There is no indication that Philips’ entry was disqualified, however.

Scientists who developed rival bulbs were outraged when they heard that the department allowed Philips to move forward.

"We treated the standards as Gospel: you had to have 900 lumens, you had to have the right color, the right temperature, the right (light distribution)," said one engineer who worked on the Lighting Sciences Group’s L Prize design.

"We went through revision after revision because if you change the (brightness), the color could be wrong and we’d start over. If we had known we could have fudged the (brightness) then everything else becomes easy," the engineer said.

In 2009, when other lighting companies were still at the design phase of the process, Philips submitted a 2,000-bulb sample to the department. The quick submission intimidated many others vying for the L Prize, according to multiple industry insiders.

"Not once did the DOE ever let anyone know about the testing results; there was no transparency," another lighting expert said. "If they had made it known in 2010 that Philips didn’t pass the test, then other competitors would have proceeded forward. The inference was that they passed."

The department closed the competition and awarded Philips the $10 million prize in August 2011.

The brightness test was not the only requirement that Philips may not have reached. Department notes also indicate that reviewers changed the light distribution criteria to Philips’ favor.

"Testing and modeling of prototype production lamps show the luminous intensity distribution falling below 10 percent from the mean near 150 degrees," the report said. "However, the TSC finds the use of the 0-135 degree zone acceptable … this is different than the 0-150 zone specified."

"The department cannot just change the rules on how they are going to test, especially if they don’t tell other competitors about the rule change," said a second lighting insider. "Only Philips benefitted from the criteria change."

The contest has been marred by several controversies since it opened in 2008.

A House Appropriations Committee report issued in June slammed the department for announcing the $10 million prize without prior approval from Congress.

"The Committee strongly opposes the Department announcing funding opportunities when those funds have not yet been made available by Congress," the report said. "In the case of the L Prize, the Department risks damaging its credibility."

The warning was enough to worry higher-ups at Philips, which spent nearly $1.8 million lobbying Congress to fund the program.

The bulb’s $50 price tag also produced sticker shock among industry insiders. It is about double the cost of existing LED bulbs and about fifty times higher than the 60-watt incandescent bulb it was designed to replace.

"I’m impressed with the technology, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who’s not," the former LSG engineer said. "But we were going for a $22 bulb, forget rebates, and Philips missed it by a mile."

The L Prize winner is expected to last 25,000 hours and save consumers $160 over the lifetime of the bulb compared to 60-watt incandescent bulbs, which were outlawed by the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA).

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu said the competition helped move LED technology forward by providing companies with incentives to make energy efficient bulbs.

"The idea of that light bulb contest was to provide for a goal going further down to get a light bulb that eventually, Americans can afford," he told Congress in March.

The former LSG executive is not convinced.

"Letting (the bulb) come out that expensive, I think it set the market back … people are looking for a return on investment and this just tells them they can’t afford any LED bulbs," he said. "I can’t blame the U.S. citizens for saying, ‘my God, the government is wasting our money.’"

In March, DOE opened the second round of the L Prize competition, which will aim to replace the existing halogen floodlight.