Outside editorial: Energy inefficient

Posted: Thursday, March 13, 2008

This editorial first appeared in the Los Angeles Times:

Ever since World War I, our government has been intermittently messing with our sleep patterns, forcing Americans to get up in the dark every spring. Has all this early rising made us healthy, wealthy and wise, as Benjamin Franklin, who wrongfully gets most of the credit (and the blame) for inventing daylight saving time, suggested? Don't count on it.

And don't count on saving any energy either. The main justification for springing forward and falling back each year - that it lowers electricity use - turns out to be a myth. Think about that the next time your alarm goes off at a time when the roosters are still dreaming blissfully of brood hens.

Researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara, recently examined power bills in Indiana, the ideal laboratory for a study of the effects of daylight saving time because, until 2006, 15 counties adjusted their clocks every spring while the rest of the 92 did not. After a law imposed the time switch on everybody in the state, researchers could compare electricity use before the change and after.

The result: Daylight saving time cost Indiana households an additional $8.6 million a year. Not only did the time change not save energy, but it heightened energy usage. The researchers speculated that the jump was related to heating and air conditioning - when people rise earlier in the cold spring months they turn on the heater, and when they get home earlier in the hot summer months they crank up the AC.

Franklin, who wrote a tongue-in-cheek letter urging Parisians to get up earlier in the summer, didn't really invent daylight saving time. That honor goes to a dotty Englishman named William Willett, who thought his countrymen were missing out on some fine golfing by squandering daylight hours. After his death in 1915, it became an article of faith on this side of the Atlantic that his proposed time change would save energy better devoted to the war effort during both world wars. In 1966, it was standardized nationwide, although states could still opt out. At the height of the energy crisis in 1974, it started as early as January to conserve power, and last year it was extended by three weeks.

There are other justifications for daylight saving time besides energy conservation. Some claim that it reduces crime, although evidence is scanty; there's a slightly better case that it reduces auto accidents. And it has been a boon for the barbecue-grill industry. But the next 10 o'clock scholar who tells us to get up at 9 in order to save the world had better have clearer proof than the daylight saving proponents, or we're not giving him the time of day.



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