Daylight Saving: Energy Policy or Placebo?

In December 1973, President Richard Nixon explained to the American people his administration’s critical initiative to confront the “energy crisis” du jour (precipitated by the 1973–74 Arab oil embargo): “Many [energy savings measures] require inconvenience and sacrifice. But daylight saving time… will mean only a minimum of inconvenience and will involve equal participation by all. Unlike many of our other initiatives to deal with the energy crisis and to accomplish the goal of self-sufficiency in energy… these savings will not require research, new technology, diplomacy, or exploration.”

In the almost four decades since President Nixon resurrected daylight saving as a critical component of national energy policy, our populace has clung to the hope that such a “no cost/no sacrifice” silver bullet would rescue us from each succeeding energy crisis. The nation accordingly ignored President Jimmy Carter’s admonition that confronting our energy exigencies required great sacrifices approaching the “moral equivalent of war.”

In contrast, advocates of “no cost/no sacrifice” energy policies have successfully promoted repetitive expansions of the period for daylight saving over competing energy reduction strategies that impose costs and promise no quick fix. Even if daylight saving represented a viable program in the past century, energy policies designed to avoid investment and retain existing technologies are simply no longer credible.

Historical Background

Benjamin Franklin is credited as the first to identify the potential fuel savings associated with adjusting the clock. Germany introduced the first large-scale daylight saving program during World War I with the intent to divert coal from artificial lighting uses to the war effort.

In 1918, U.S. federal law standardized the start and end dates for daylight saving. During World War II, Congress mandated daylight saving throughout the 50 states. Following the end of the war, other than 1973 and 1974, the daylight saving time period was 26 or 27 weeks. Beginning in 1988, federal legislation extended the period to 29 or 30 weeks. A 1975 federal study concluded that these measures reduced overall electric consumption by 1%. In a 1976 report to Congress, “Review and Technical Evaluation of the DOT Daylight Saving Time Study,” the National Bureau of Standards found no significant energy savings.

Energy Policy Act of 2005: Same Old, Same Old

From the early 1980s until the initial years of this century, oil prices remained around $25 a barrel. However, prices began a run-up in mid-2003, reaching $60 a barrel by summer 2005. Congress passed the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (EPACT) to respond this “second energy crisis.” Prices ultimately peaked at just under $150 in mid-2008, before declining due to the financial crisis and associated global recession.

The various policy options available to Congress to counter these price escalations included increasing Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, directing greater investment in energy efficiency hardware, and funding further research in conservation technologies. Congress, however, essentially “dropped back 30 years” and punted on these “investment/technology” options. It reverted to President Nixon’s political acumen to prioritize a policy promising “no cost/no inconvenience.”

Thus, the cornerstone of EPACT’s energy-savings measure was to yet again extend the daylight saving period. Our clocks now “spring ahead” on the second Sunday in March and “fall back” on the first Sunday in November. This 34-week period observed by most of the United States likely represents the world’s longest daylight saving period, exceeding the period in European nations by three or four weeks.

Energy Policy or Legislative Placebo?

At one level, EPACT’s expansion of daylight saving time could be viewed as a success: Almost no government funds were spent. The Department of Energy (DOE) also claims the extension reduced energy consumption. The DOE savings, however, are less than 0.5% and, moreover, only during the additional weeks of daylight saving in March and October. Critics challenged the validity of even this near-negligible energy reduction and argued further that on an annual basis this transitory savings is probably statistically insignificant. Furthermore, the fundamental debate over whether daylight saving time saves total energy consumption at all times and in all localities remains; critics contend that having more daylight hours increases air conditioning electric load and “leisure” gas consumption.

We need not quibble whether 34 weeks is better than 30 weeks. EPACT warrants criticism for its knee-jerk and near-exclusive reliance on expanding the period for daylight saving as the leading measure to reduce electricity consumption. Our nearly half-century experience responding to energy crises demonstrates that national energy policy must be developed with the understanding that there are no quick fixes and that success demands public and private investment, measured risk-taking (not all of which proves successful), and technological advances.

Energy policy must be crafted based on current facts and circumstances. President Nixon’s reliance on daylight saving made sense—increasing daylight hours in the 1970s represented the easily attainable “low-hanging fruit” of energy efficiency. However, EPACT expanded daylight saving only because “it worked before” and to avoid the political awkwardness of pursuing meaningful energy measures. Congress will again mislead the populace if it suggests further daylight saving or any other “no cost/no sacrifice” pseudo-options remain available. Daylight saving should be assessed on its comparative social and economic costs and benefits. As a means to reduce energy consumption, daylight saving, particularly any further expansion of its duration, must be dismissed as a distracting placebo.

Steven F. Greenwald  (stevegreenwald@dwt.com) and  Jeffrey P. Gray  (jeffgray@dwt.com) are partners in Davis Wright Tremaine’s Energy Practices Group.