Extended daylight saving time: Bah, humbug

New research suggests diminishing returns from congressional clock-tweaking.

Published March 12, 2007 4:30PM (EDT)

Those of us who woke up in the dark this morning supposedly have a right to feel virtuous. The extension of daylight saving time in the United States is intended by Congress to save electricity. The principle behind DST is that a society can conserve power by not wasting any daylight hours on the sleeping multitudes. As spring has approached, we've come perilously close to such reckless behavior. But no more!

The attraction to lawmakers of this kind of wave the magic wand and electricity use declines without anyone having to sacrifice anything is obvious. But does the theory hold true when DST starts cutting into the traditional domain of winter?

A recently published study by researchers at the University of California says no. (Thanks to Economist's View's Mark Thoma for passing on a link to the study provided by Environmental Economics.) Using data from Australia in 2000, when several states extended daylight saving time for two months for logistical reasons related to Australia's hosting of the Olympics, the researchers come to a contrarian conclusion. (One state refused to go along due to rural protest, providing a handy control for comparison purposes.)

Electricity use was not conserved in the extended DST states. Instead, consumption patterns revealed a new, sharp spike in morning electricity use, as Australians woke in the dark and cold, turned on the heat, and started flipping on switches. Electricity demand actually rose.

The argument is not against daylight saving time per se, but against extending it too far into the winter, and forcing people to awaken in the frigid, barren wee hours of the morning. There appears to be an optimum time to tweak our clocks, and we may be pushing the boundaries of what works.

What would Benjamin Franklin think? Mr. Early-to-Bed, Early-to-Rise, described by the researchers as a pioneer in conducting statistical treatments of resource economics, criticized those who lived by the clock instead of the sun, because "it wastes valuable sources of morning daylight and requires expensive candles to illuminate the nights. Franklin calculates that this misallocation causes Paris to consume an additional 64 million pounds of tallow and wax annually."

One surmises that Mr. Franklin would appreciate Ryan M. Kellog and Hendrik Wolff's discerning look at the data. But my guess is that he'd also be getting all his own electricity from solar panels and windmills, while he home-brewed biodiesel for his hybrid plug-in. So a change in the clocks wouldn't make much difference to him.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

MORE FROM Andrew Leonard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Globalization How The World Works