Energy Doubts Cloud Daylight Saving Time

If only something as simple as mandating longer afternoon hours could halt the steady increase in electricity demand.

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For those of us still rubbing our eyes each day, trying to adjust to the dark March mornings of the new earlier daylight saving time, here are some disappointing figures. Congress decided in 2005 to lengthen daylight saving time by about a month to save energy. But in March 2007—the first year of extended daylight hours—electric power consumption in the United States was 321.2 million megawatt hours—up 1 percent over March 2006, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Even more disturbing: Last October, the other end of the season when we should have been enjoying extended daylight energy savings, electricity use was up 3 percent over the previous year.

Of course, the experts will tell you these raw numbers really are not definitive—they are not adjusted for other factors, such as the increase in population or the differences in weather between 2006 and 2007. Who knows? Without the additional month of daylight saving time, power consumption might have gone up even more. However, the bottom line matters, too. And the plain truth is that the nation's electricity consumption is continuing its annual climb and was up 2 percent in 2007 over 2006.

I was moved to look up these numbers by the speech that Sen. Jeff Bingaman, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, made to open last week's excellent energy summit hosted by the National Academy of Sciences. "I personally am glad we already have daylight savings in place and have more light in the evening," Bingaman said, but he added he saw studies both assuring that energy savings were in store, and studies disputing that notion, and he did not know which were right.

As we noted here, the equivocal evidence was apparent even a year ago. There is also this "very preliminary" draft study of changes that were made in 2006 to daylight saving time in Indiana, where historically part of the state had always stayed on standard time. The University of California-Santa Barbara researchers concluded there was some evidence of savings in the spring, but they were more than offset by an increase in electricity use in the fall, costing Indiana households an additional $8.6 million in electricity bills.

For the record, I agree with Bingaman, since the longer afternoon hours are great for my young daughter in both the spring and fall. But more to the point, I agree with his further remarks at last week's summit, that too often policymakers underestimate the complexity of our energy troubles.

He noted that many people now call for a Manhattan Project or Apollo Project for energy. "I'd argue that the task they faced was somewhat easier than what we face today with our energy challenges," Bingaman said. "Both of those projects were aimed at achieving one overall goal, and they succeeded because they kept focused on that goal. Energy policy doesn't have a single goal—it is extremely complex and multifaceted.... We run a real risk in energy policy if we try to oversimplify the problem or understate the energy problems that we face."

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