By Max Schulz
Special to washingtonpost.com's Think Tank Town
Wednesday, March 14, 2007 12:00 AM
Government is notoriously averse to the idea that sunlight is the best disinfectant. So when Congress goes out of its way to shed more light on something, there is probably more involved than meets the eye.
A case in point occurred at 2 a.m. Sunday, when Daylight Savings Time kicked in to spring our clocks forward one hour. Thanks to a provision in the 2005 Energy Policy Act, it gets underway this year three weeks earlier than its customary recent starting date of the first Sunday in April. The new law extends DST by four weeks each year, three at the front end with a week tacked on at Halloween. The idea is elementary: An extra hour of sunlight at the end of the day cuts an hour off the time when people are awake yet need to light their homes. An easy, pain-free way to curb energy use, right? Not exactly.
The proposal's chief congressional backer, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), has been positively sunny in his rationale for extending DST, painting it as a feel-good measure that won't merely save energy, but will decrease traffic fatalities and reduce crime rates. Talking up extra hours for barbecues and other leisure activities, Markey says, "Daylight Savings just brings a smile to everybody's faces."
Let's hope so, because moving DST up three weeks won't just make us tired a few weeks earlier every year, it will entail real costs above and beyond the time switch Americans already make biannually. Some are minor nuisances. Most of our electronic devices are programmed to handle DST as we have known it, so the new start will force many to have to manually reset the internal clocks on our desktop computers.
But what is a personal nuisance to individuals becomes a logistical nightmare to those responsible for larger, computerized telecommunications networks that handle things like banking and securities transactions. Networks might be patched in time to avoid the sort of catastrophes predicted for Y2K, but not without a significant price to be paid in time and money. Time magazine recently quoted one technology analyst's estimate that the average publicly traded company would spend $50,000 to deal with the new DST start. Then there is the confusion that will come from being temporarily out of kilter with the rest of the international economy. Airlines fear losing preferred landing and takeoff positions at international airports because of the scheduling switch. Companies with international offices and clients will have yet another ball in the air when juggling schedules and logistics.
All of this might be worth the cost and inconvenience if the proposal does what its backers promise, namely save energy. Rep. Markey and other proponents cite a 1975 government study predicting that extending Daylight Savings would save the equivalent of 10,000 barrels of oil per day.
The prospects for real savings, however, don't look very good. For one thing, 10,000 barrels of oil hardly amounts to much in an energy economy that consumes 20 million barrels each day. Furthermore, it's something of a red herring to discuss potential savings in terms of oil, since the savings aim to come from non-petroleum-generated electricity.
Whether DST can produce substantial savings is doubtful. The 32-year-old study cited by DST's Capitol Hill champions suggested that total annual energy savings from Daylight Savings Time are in the ballpark of just 1 or 2 percent. More recent analysis throws cold water on the notion that the new DST start makes sense. An analyst for the California Energy Commission last month speculated that "a best guess of total energy savings is on the order of ½ of one percent, but savings could just as well be zero." The author suggested there was even a 25 percent chance of a small increase in energy use, as the inevitable power spike in the darker morning slightly offsets evening gains. That was the experience in the Australian state of Victoria when it moved DST up two months in 2000.
The 2005 energy bill didn't provide any meaningful measures to expand domestic supplies of energy, opting instead for gimmicks like extra DST. Extra Daylight Savings Time is simply legislative sleight of hand designed to make citizens think they are getting something they are not. The simple fact is that Congress can't create any extra sunlight. DST's gains will be illusory, meaning what we experienced this past weekend is energy policy as Three-card Monty. Ladies and Gentlemen, step right up.
Max Schulz is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research.