In my discussion of the pending Energy Bill on Wednesday, I neglected to mention a provision that may actually have a greater impact on Americans than all the others combined: the extension of Daylight Savings Time (DST) by a month, starting next year. While its supporters argue this will reduce electricity demand by 1%, recent experience suggests that the net energy savings may be more modest and chiefly come in the form of load-shifting that would benefit areas where peak generating capacity is tight. But aside from its debatable energy benefits, the larger impact of extended DST may be symbolic, and I worry about the message being sent.
Anyone over 40 probably remembers the last time this step was taken. Daylight Savings Time was extended by President Nixon in the wake of the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973-74. Other responses to that emergency included the 55 mile per hour speed limit and the establishment of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. But we're not really in an "energy crisis" now, but rather a market-driven adjustment to capacity constraints. What kind of signal does extended daylight saving time send, compared to the signals already being sent by higher energy prices?
More importantly, I'm concerned about the subtext of the message. "We're in a fix and the best we can do is reach back to a thirty year old emergency measure" doesn't really cut it for me. As I've suggested many times in this blog and in conversation with friends and colleagues, the most striking difference between the energy crises of the 1970s and the situation in which we find ourselves today is the wealth of options we now have: our sources of oil are more diverse, we have hybrid cars that can get more than 50 miles per gallon, natural gas is becoming a diversified global business--thanks to technology and cost improvements in LNG--and renewable energy, especially wind power, is ready for prime time. None of this was true in 1973 or 1979.
If adding a few more hours of evening daylight--and morning darkness--in March and November alerts Americans that we should be more efficient in our use of energy, that's great. But if it shifts our focus away from the real solutions that are now available to us and tells us that we are back in the same box as the 1970s, then it will merely be a counterproductive annoyance.