Daylight savings time starts tonight in the United States, 5 weeks earlier than it has in prior years. The theory behind the change was that it would save energy. The theory, from what I can tell, was based on studies that dated to the Nixon Administration. Like so much in the Bush Administration, it was a “no-brainer” fix, a painless step that seemed like a win-win. I bet you $1 that it turns out to be lose-lose.
The win-win idea was that it would cost little to implement the change, consumers would save money, and the U.S. would become more energy-independent. All of these are likely to turn out false.
A computer analyst estimated the costs at about $1,500 million. Not a big deal in an economy that spends $13,244,600 million a year, but if people had that money just laying about, it might have been nice chipping in, say, to the $4,000 million a year it would take to eliminate water-borne diseases worldwide.
The California Energy Commission said “There is no clear evidence that electricity will be saved from the earlier start to daylight saving time on March 11… a best guess of total net energy savings is on the order of 1/2 of one percent, but savings could just as well be zero. Moreover, our statistical analysis leaves us with one chance in four there could be a very small increase in electricity use. The possibility of an increase in electric use is not just academic.” I bet that 1 in 4 will turn out to be the case, nationwide if not in California, because the test case for both the Energy Commission and these scholars was in a relatively temperate clime, quite unlike the weather that prevails at this season in the southern U.S. (High of 81 in Houston today; upper 80s and 90s predicted all week in Phoenix.)
Back in 1973 when the Nixon Administration first considered changing clocks to save energy, the idea was that people would spend more of their evenings in homes illuminated by the sun, reducing the need for electric lights. Today, the sun still shines, but it’s no longer good for energy savings. After all, the Department of Energy says, “Lighting accounted for 9.4 percent of all electricity consumption in U.S. households in 1993, less than air conditioning, water heating, space heating, or refrigeration.” It’s very likely that this statement is truer today than it 14 years ago:
Demographic shift: With the mass migration to warm climates, having people get home when the sun is shining is likely to lead to an increase in residential air-conditioner use. According to my quick analysis of Census figures documenting changes in state populations from 1973 to 2006, the states with the biggest absolute population gains were California, Texas, Florida, Georgia, Arizona and North Carolina. Together they absorbed 49.2 million new residents. By contrast, the slowest-growing places, in percentage terms were: North Dakota, West Virginia, Iowa, Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, Michigan and Massachusetts. Louisiana comes next because of Hurricane Katrina, then Illinois, Connecticut, South Dakota, Nebraska, Indiana, New Jersey, Kansas, Missouri, Wisconsin, and another hurricane victim, Mississippi. You get the idea. The only way to get people out of hot climates is to destroy their homes. Which is because of…
Growing air-conditioner market penetration: Over the 19 years from 1978 to 1997, “the share of housing units with no air-conditioning equipment dropped from 44 percent to 28 percent,” according to the U.S. Department of Energy. If the trend continued at that rate over the most recent decade, that would imply about another 8 percentage points of decline, to 20 percent of homes without air conditioning. Which wouldn’t be so bad except for…
Tapering off of A/C efficiency gains: The DOE says residential electricty use rose 30 percent while home air conditioner electricity use rose only 26 percent, even as more people bought the units and used them more often. “Among the reasons air-conditioning electricity use did not rise more is the increasing efficiency of air-conditioning equipment.” After the Clinton Administration belatedly made a rule to continue this march of greater efficiency — this time with a 30% increase in efficiency on new units — the Bush Administration blocked enforcement of the rule and tried to replace it with a 20% increase. The fight delayed implementation of any rule until last January, meaning a decade went by with inefficient units being sold by the truckload.
So what does the new time regime mean? Tens of millions of people in the southern and southwestern U.S. will head home from work while it’s still light and crank up their air conditioners. Their relatively energy efficient office buildings will be left vacant so people can return home to their homes, which are twice the average size they were in 1973.
Others will take advantage of the extra light to go shopping and otherwise take part in the global economy, rather than hunkering down as they like to do in winter. This will burn energy, too.
The good news is the Department of Energy is required to report on the effects of the change within 9 months and Congress can revert to our old system if this doesn’t turn out to save energy. Which will be another great way to spend $1,500,000,000.