Monday, March 12, 2007

What Savings?

It's probably too early to tell whether we've escaped any serious glitches from the early switch to Daylight Savings Time (DST.) It was interesting hear the Congressional sponsor of this change suggest a few days ago that, aside from the other expected results of DST, it "brings a smile to everybody's faces." I wonder how many of us will be smiling when we learn that the energy savings that prompted this measure are likely to be entirely illusory--if not actually negative--based on a study of the time change's effects in Australia. As much as anything else, this exercise serves as a useful reminder of the questionable benefits of adopting 1970s-style energy policies in the 21st century.

I am sure that when extended DST was imposed during the first energy crisis of 1973-74, it saved significant quantities of energy. But it's worth recalling just how different this country was, back then. In 1970, the US population was one-third smaller, and nearly 1 in 10 Americans worked in manufacturing, compared to about 1 in 30 now. Only 40% of women were employed outside the home, compared to 60% in 2006. Today, large numbers of Americans of both sexes work "24/7" jobs that start earlier and end later, and our leisure activities are likely to be at least as energy-intensive as anything we do at the office. It's not intuitively obvious that adding an extra hour of sunlight for a few more weeks in March and October will materially change our consumption of oil, gas or electricity.

Similar concerns apply to some of the other measures that lawmakers whose personal experience extends back to the 1970s might contemplate. That includes windfall profits taxes on a US oil industry that controls a greatly diminished share of global oil production, and for which disincentives on new production result in barrel-for-barrel increases in our imports from dubious suppliers--inverting any notion of furthering energy independence. For that matter, some of the legacy policies from the first energy crisis, such as the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, need to be rethought, rather than expanded as the President suggested in January.

In the near term--barring enormous public outcry--there's probably no going back to a shorter DST, even if it becomes clear that its extension was a mistake. Reverting to the earlier schedule would require yet another round of computer system patches to replace the timetable that was just updated, and result in further confusion. But changing our clocks back on the first Sunday November, instead of in October, should remind us again that we really need energy policies tailored to how Americans live and work now, rather than to the way their parents did. And for the future, it's possible to imagine a different, more flexible kind of DST, designed not to reduce consumption, but to align the daily peak in electricity demand with the output of solar power technology.

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