Friday, March 11, 2011

Early Daylight Savings, Again

This is by way of a pet peeve, but for the benefit of any of my readers who are as annoyed as I am to be starting Daylight Savings Time three weeks early again this year I'm reprinting a portion of my posting from 2007, when the practice was introduced. It's also interesting to see that the US is very much an outlier in this regard, with most countries that change their clocks doing so on March 27 this year. For me, early DST highlights the fecklessness of much of our current energy policy, devoted more to appearances than outcomes. Here's what I said in '07, with some minor updates:

It was interesting to 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 illusory--if not actually negative--based on a study of the time change's effects in Australia. (Other studies reflect mixed results.) 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 the 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 27 now. Only 40% of women were employed outside the home, compared to 58% in 2011. 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.

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. In the long run, however, we need energy policies tailored to how Americans live and work now, rather than to the way our 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 generation.

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