When I hopped from the crisp northern California evening into my car at the ripe hour of 3:30 this morning, I crinkled my brow in puzzlement. How had my vehicle (smart enough, but not smart by our ever-modernizing conceptions thereof) known to “spring forward,” in tune with political cycles, if not natural cycles? After a few short seconds, a lightbulb alit in my head: I had never “fallen back.” When I arrived home a short fifteen minutes later, not much had changed. The clock was nearing the 4:00 a.m. zone, I was still awake (and thus at risk of catching a glimpse of early-morning NorCal fog), and daylight savings ticked onward in the most disruptive sense possible. New realities for a new day? Slight “jet lag” and an hour less in which to tackle the mounds of end-of-quarter homework that, alongside daylight savings, present a waking nightmare.
Time after time…
Time and the drive to save energy breed some strange behavior. My dad lit up my childhood with bimonthly field trips into the depths of our basement, where he lectured about the importance of switching lights off while standing next to his sidekick, the household electric meter. The colorful president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, took matters of time into his own hands in 2007, creating a Venezuela-only time zone with a mere thirty-minute alteration to maximize human energy.
And in the United States (without my dad or Mr. Chavez)? In accordance with daylight savings time (DST), we turn our clocks forward one hour in March, based on the premises that we will reduce home electricity consumption, lower electricity prices, and make the most of the day by adding an hour of daylight to the afternoon when we typically return home from work or school. But is the correlation between DST and energy savings fact or fiction? And what does the sporadic adoption of DST across county, state, and nation lines tell us about the certainty of the principle? Let’s rub the sleep from our eyes and take a look.
Sustainable or suspicious policy? The federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 may have sanctified DST practice with the addition of two weeks to each cycle, but you’re absolutely right in musing that the correlation between DST and measurable energy savings is dubious—and most likely fictitious.
The DST focus on residential electricity consumption from lighting underestimates the changes in non-lighting energy consumption of households rising with the roosters and battling the heat of sunny afternoons. Reports based on case studies in Indiana and Australia advance the following principle: if the additional consumption of heating and cooling outweighs the energy savings from decreased lighting demand (if this even occurs), then DST is not an effective mechanism for reducing energy consumption.
In addition to the increases in electricity consumption observed in both Indiana and Australia over a DST cycle, the policy encourages energy-intensive, consumer behavior like driving around in the extra light of day. Researchers in Helsinki, Finland further note that DST saps human energy by disrupting circadian rhythms vital to restful and rejuvenating sleep.
Awakening to the power of household lifestyle changes
So what should we, sleep-deprived residents, make of this energy-inefficient policy? In the absence of meaningful, energy-saving policy, let’s legislate on our own terms:
- § BE AN “ENERGY SAVER”: With heating, cooling, water heating, and refrigeration accounting for approximately 65% of household energy consumption, we could create our own EST—energy savings time—with small-scale behavior and equipment changes. For heating and cooling, you might consider cutting your consumption and instead layering up or down. And for refrigeration, check out the Energy Star appliances website to learn about newer, energy-efficient models on the market today.
- § FUN UNDER THE SUN: DST does provide more afternoon sunlight, so we could recreate the outdoor delight of our childhoods. For surefire energy savings, go for a low-impact activity and soak up some sun—perhaps a walk, bike ride, or shooting some hoops with the neighbors. Let’s switch off our appliances and head outside; my dad and his tired electric meter will thank all of us.
To really improve your household energy efficiency, check out:
- Tips and action steps from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
- The EPA Household Emissions Calculator to measure your at-home footprint.
- Solar Power Info to learn about how you could save with solar panels.