THE BLOG
03/12/2012 03:00 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2012

The Washington Post 's Triple Fail

The Washington Post's front page March 9 of this year featured an article entitled "Affordability award goes to $50 light bulb" (and the online title: Government-subsidized green light bulb carries costly price tag). Reading like a partisan hit job against the Department of Energy's efforts to use 'prizes' to foster technological innovation into the market place, this article focused on "cost to buy" without any serious discussion or calculation of "cost to own" implications (see here and here) of buying a super efficient and long-lasting bulb.

That is, with one major graphical exception. Friday's Post had this graphic quite prominently displayed in the article's continuation to page 4.

Do you notice anything striking about this?

Look again.

Wow, not only does that LED bulb cost $50 (wowza!) but it costs five dollars more to own over a decade! OUCH!

And, I promise you, this is where 99+% of those who looked at the graphic stopped.

Look again.

Hmmm... 1800 kilowatt hours of electricity for $18 and 300 kilowatt hours of electricity costs just $3?

Talk about too cheap to meter ...

I didn't only get the Washington Post March 9, I also got my February electric bill. For a total usage of 638 kWh, a bill of $79.21. Yes, $21.48 is "distribution charge" but that still leaves me above 9 cents per kilowatt hour. In fact, according to the Energy Information Administration, the average price of residential electricity in 2011 across the United States: 11.8 cents per kilowatt hour.

Okay, look at that graphic which "proves" that over ten years, incandescent lighting would cost the purchaser $5 less than buying LEDs (and, of course, this is simple payback -- it doesn't get into factors such as the time value of money (paying that $50 for the LED today vs tomorrow's electricity savings), investment risk (the risk of buying a household of LEDs and then moving); opportunity costs (what else could you do with the money); etc .... (Note, just as in the article, there is zero dealing with the sides that benefit LEDs which include: saved time on having to buy / replace light-bulbs, greater safety, etc.) If one plugs in 11.8 cents (remembering, of course, that electricity prices have been going up much faster than general inflation), then the 1800 kWH over ten years costs $212.40and the 300 kWh $35.40. Putting aside the fact that the LED light would almost certainly last longer than 10 years, the ten year total cost of the LED bulb would be $85.40 and the series of incandescents would cost $242.40. Of course, that is "average" across the country. As another commentator put it:

result is you pay $180 for electricity with the old bulbs vs. $30 with the LED bulb. The electricity savings alone pays for the bulb 3 times over! Even paying the cheapest electricity rates in the country, a consumer will save about $100. But if you live in NY, PA, CA, or AL it's about $200. In HI it's over $500! That's not "affordable?"

As per that, numerous people caught this error (see comments to the Post article) and contacted the Washington Post.

This included the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources:

That error goes to the heart of the Post story. Is it fair to say that a bulb that the Post reports will cost $50 is unaffordable, while failing to mention that the savings on monthly electricity bills will far outweigh that cost? A key premise of the story -- the affordability of advanced lighting -- is based on a significant, misleading error about electricity prices. The Post has now deleted from its website the part of their graphic that contained its erroneous cost comparison. But the story that remains on its website is still lacking in balance. Even though advanced lighting costs more upfront, each advanced light bulb actually saves its owner a very tidy sum of money.

Here's a more accurate graphic, courtesy of ThinkProgress Green.

Note that figure is actually somewhat generous to incandescent bulbs as it uses 10 cents per kWh, which is nearly 20 percent lower than what the Energy Information Administration states was the average 2011 domestic price of electricity (11.8 cents per kWh).

What was the Post's reaction? Revamping the graphic above to remove the error -- and providing no indication in the online article nor at the new graphic of the error.

For whatever reason, as a (soon to no longer be due to mediocre journalism like this) loyal Washington Post subscriber, I decided to wait until Saturday morning's paper to see how the Post handled this. I wondered would there be a notable front page statement correcting the error and apologizing or would there be a semi-buried 'fact' correction on page 2. Not to disappoint, the Post delivered neither.

Simply put, with this article, the idiotic error in the graphic, and its handling of that error, the Washington Post:
  • Failed to demonstrate the most basic math capability and flunked that basic question "Are you smarter than a fifth grader?"
  • Failed the most basic journalistic ethical obligation to be honest with its readership and correct, rather than hide, its errors.
  • Failed its readership by providing a skewed article and false information about an issue of vital national importance and relevance to its readership's decisions about purchases for their own homes.
That graphics abysmal error and misrepresentation helps masks more serious issues.

The Post failed not just with the mathematical error but a stove-piped approach that failed to address the need to think more broadly and provide better/more information. For example, what about "externalities" such as mercury emissions from coal-fired electricity power plants and the impact on America's IQ? Or, CO2 implications. For example, even without considering all the additional travel to buy the additional incandescent bulbs, based on the rough average of 1 pound of Co2 per kilowatt hour of electricity in the United States, this one 60 watt socket would lead to 1800 lbs of CO2 emissions over 10 years and the LED about 300. If we take a social cost of carbon low-to-moderate valuation of $50 per ton ($100 might be more reasonable) with an assumption (hope) that that will eventually be in the cost of electricity, the LED would incur $7.50 of carbon charge while the incandescent bulbs would have $45 of charges. Hmmm... that alone pays for the difference in the bulb acquisition cost.

But, even without addressing the externalities and other such minor issues, the Post's long article failed on too many accounts.

There is a very serious issue in the whole realm of energy efficiency. Writ large (not 100% true but close enough), the more energy efficient option costs more upfront when comparing 'same-to-same.' We see this in refrigerators, cars, Washington machines, homes, etc... Whether buying hybrid technology, extra insulation, or a more efficient light bulb, the core challenge: pay more upfront to control future costs.

America has developed a 99-cent shopping obsession that has turned Benjamin Franklin's axiom "a penny saved is a penny earned" on its head. A price of $100 gives us pause, but a price of $99.99 seems like a bargain. Combined with easy access to revolving credit and our disposal culture, our focus on purchase price overshadows the total cost of many of our purchase decisions. We tend to focus on the "cost to buy" rather than the "cost to own." More often than we care to admit, we are -- to trot out another axiom that predates Franklin -- "penny wise and pound foolish."

In reporting on an "affordability prize" that seemed to flunk common sense, on first glance, the Washington Post had a chance to seriously discuss this issue. The $50 upfront cost could have been contrasted with the eventual $70+ in savings. The article already quotes retailers about the challenge of getting someone to buy a $50 bulb when there is something available next to it for $1. This could have been expanded and examined. Do retailers see people shifting to cost-to-own mentality in some purchases? What do retailers think and researchers find about what payback times are expected? There could have been a discussion what having a $50 LED bulb on the shelf might mean for sales of $17 LED bulbs. (Note: marketing research has shown that having super luxury items (lets say a $2500 barbecue) boost sales of the luxury item (a $500 barbecue) next to it because that item now seems like 'a deal' and a reasonable purchase.)

Thus, while the Washington Post made a stupid mathematical error and augmented the problem through its stupid handling of people discovering the error, the failure is more fundamental. As per above, this article reads like a partisan hit job against the Department of Energy -- attacking the L-Prize for producing a bulb that costs $50 to buy without discussing the energy (and other) savings the bulb will deliver -- rather than a serious effort to inform the public from what used to be one of America's most serious journalism outlets.

NOTES:

  • Over a day after writing this piece, the Washington Post posted a corrected version of the graphic. For that, see: Is corrected online graphic enough? WashPost Cost-to-Buy vs Cost-to-Own fail. In Monday's paper, they ran a correction -- on page A2, with zero indication on the front page, with solely the corrected total ownership cost part of the graphic which was, physically, about 1/3rd the width of Friday's erroneous chart. As per the post's title: Fail!
  • An aside...: Lighting issues have long been 'close' to my heart. Here is a version of the very first blog post "A Siegel" ever did looking at the benefits of replacing incandescents with CFLs in my most used lights: the kitchen. Making Energy Cents -- From the Home to the Globe.

    And, in additional examples, Calculating the Financial Benefits of Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs (CFLs): the case of a condo building and Holiday Lighting... scrooge or savior? (an annual refrain...).