Although smart phones and computers make it easier to remember, last month Americans endured the semi-annual hassle of changing their clocks an hour. “Daylight Saving Time” (DST) was originally started during World War I to allegedly save energy. Jimmy Carter gave it to us in peacetime as part of his National Energy Plan. In practice, DST causes needless headaches—and even heart attacks!—and arguably doesn’t even save energy.
Chalk it up to yet another failed government intervention.
The Hubris of DST
Joe Romm is not afraid to recommend society-changing government intervention in order to achieve a conservation goal, and he proposes drastic carbon legislation to prevent what he sees as “hell and high water.” Yet even this central planner hit the nail on the head when he complained: “You can’t save daylight by moving around the hands on your clock, of course. So daylight saving time remains as absurdly named as it ever was.”
For those who are skeptical of the current suite of climate models, Romm’s complaint is ironic. The same mindset that led government wartime planners to alter time, leads today’s planners to project what the global temperature will be in the year 2080.
The Harm of DST
There are many harms to DST. Most obvious, there is the hassle every household endures in actually changing the numerous clocks (microwaves, nightstand, watch, car, etc.). Although this doesn’t seem like a big deal, imagine if the federal government mandated that every U.S. citizen sit in a timeout corner for 15 minutes twice a year. Multiplied over hundreds of millions of people, that would add up to a significant waste of time, unless there were some corresponding benefit to the practice.
More serious, DST leads to health problems. When people “spring forward,” they lose an hour of sleep. This actually leads to a spike in heart attacks in the first week of DST. (Offsetting this is the apparent reduction in motor vehicle fatalities, because fewer accidents occur in daylight.)
There is also the huge coordination problem between regions that do not practice DST, or do not practice it during the same calendar period. For one personal anecdote, I teach an online economics course. At least one of my students—who lives in another country—missed the lecture that occurred after the time switch, because he didn’t realize I had altered my clock.
DST Might Not Even Save Energy!
What is particularly absurd is that DST might not even fulfill its alleged purpose. The original idea was that DST would shift daylight from the early morning, when people were still asleep, to the evening, before people had gone to bed. By extending daylight by an hour at night, DST would reduce the need to use energy for artificial light.
Although DST may have served this purpose when it was originally instituted, several studies suggest that it no longer does so. An almost perfectly controlled experiment occurred when several Indiana counties adopted DST back in 2006. This episode was summarized in the Wall Street Journal:
[Previously,] only 15 of Indiana’s 92 counties set their clocks an hour ahead in the spring and an hour back in the fall. The rest stayed on standard time all year, in part because farmers resisted the prospect of having to work an extra hour in the morning dark. But many residents came to hate falling in and out of sync with businesses and residents in neighboring states and prevailed upon the Indiana Legislature to put the entire state on daylight-saving time beginning in the spring of 2006.
Indiana’s change of heart gave University of California-Santa Barbara economics professor Matthew Kotchen and Ph.D. student Laura Grant a unique way to see how the time shift affects energy use. Using more than seven million monthly meter readings from Duke Energy Corp., covering nearly all the households in southern Indiana for three years, they were able to compare energy consumption before and after counties began observing daylight-saving time. Readings from counties that had already adopted daylight-saving time provided a control group that helped them to adjust for changes in weather from one year to the next.
Their finding: Having the entire state switch to daylight-saving time each year, rather than stay on standard time, costs Indiana households an additional $8.6 million in electricity bills. They conclude that the reduced cost of lighting in afternoons during daylight-saving time is more than offset by the higher air-conditioning costs on hot afternoons and increased heating costs on cool mornings.
“I’ve never had a paper with such a clear and unambiguous finding as this,” says Mr. Kotchen, who presented the paper at a National Bureau of Economic Research conference…
A 2007 study by economists Hendrik Wolff and Ryan Kellogg of the temporary extension of daylight-saving in two Australian territories for the 2000 Summer Olympics also suggested the clock change increases energy use. [Bold added.]
Daylight Saving Time is a perfect illustration of a misguided government program that causes both minor hassles and serious harms. Ironically, it may not even conserve energy, which is its ostensible purpose. Daylight Saving Time provides a warning for newer proposals to use government to disrupt the normal course of society, in the name of reducing energy consumption.