Spring forward

Under the new legislation passed by the United States Congress in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, today is the first day of daylight savings! Rather than moving your clock forward one hour at 2am on the first Sunday in April, we will instead be moving them up at 2am on the second Sunday in March (that’s today!). The reason given for all of this is that it will allow the United States to reduce demand for electricity during the extra month by roughly 1%, which represents a great deal of energy in bulk terms, by having one less hour in the day during which we all have our lights on.

There is some controversy over this, however. Some people argue that there is no net gain in energy savings as the result of daylight savings, because given the way that most people’s schedules work these days, what it really means is we just run the lights for an hour in the morning, instead. At least one study performed on a real-life example of the nation of Australia extending daylight savings by two months to help facilitate the 2000 Sydney Olympics, showed that there were no actual gains in the observed level of electricity demand, even after adjusted for weather conditions and other factors, under the extended daylight savings program.

There is also the issue of what this change means for all of the computer systems which are programmed to use the old daylight savings time rules. People have been talking about a “mini Y2k”. I, for what it’s worth, don’t believe that anything is going to come crashing down around us as the result. All of the major computer systems that rely on time data have already been updated. There might be some minor problems, particularly among smaller companies with less extensive technology staff, but the lights will stay on, and the planes will stay airborne.

Then again, I’m posting this rather late, so maybe my computer’s clock has already foiled my attempts to be timely with this post.

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20 Responses to Spring forward

  1. BBarron says:

    I heard from Goshawk that the Golf Lobby was really behind the expansion of DST.

    Reporting in on the “mini Y2K” status of my own equipment: my computer clock righted itself without any help from me. I believe this is because my machine was made after Congress changed the DST dates in 2005. My satellite alarm clock also turned right over. However (and this surprised me) my cell phone clock didn’t change until I adjusted it manually. I would have thought Sprint would have been more ahead of the game on this.

  2. Mark says:

    BB,

    Any computer running a modern operating system, even if it was made before the law was passed, should have been updated by a recent patch. I know that Microsoft released one for Windows XP, which if you keep your OS up to date, should have been automatically installed.

    As for the cell phone, that can be a mixed bag. Mine, against all expectation, updated itself. However, when I have traveled to a different time zone in the past, I’ve usually had to turn the phone off and then back on again in order to get it to update. Some phones are just finicky about when they bother to check what time it is against the tower. It might be that Sprint didn’t update their signal, but I think the more likely scenario is that your phone just didn’t get around to asking the tower what time it was.

    Why, may I ask, does the Golf Lobby care? Do they expect to be able to get in more rounds of golf before sundown? I suppose that would be enough to get them up out of their chairs, except in this part of the country, nobody plays golf this time of year, because we still have a fair bit of snow on the ground.

  3. Mike says:

    There’s another angle, too: When DST was introduced in the 40s and reintroduced in the 60s, I’d guess that electric lights represented a larger share of our energy consumption than they do today. These days, we drive around a lot more. Longer daylight in the evenings is only going to make us drive around more, which would make the DST expansion a handout to oil companies and retailers, presumably at the expense of evening family time.

    I haven’t been able to find any studies of this phenomenon, though. It’s just an amusing thought.

  4. Mark says:

    Mike,

    That would be an interesting angle to explore. I’m sure that there are more cars on the road now than there were in the 1960s, and certainly more than there were in the 1940s. Light bulbs, on average, are also more efficient than they used to be. Then again, I’d bet (though I can’t prove) that the average house in 2007 has a lot more lights in it than the average house in 1947. The 1% number was quoted in 2005 when the law was passed, but I have no numbers for how that proportion compares to any point in the past.

    However, the argument that extending daylight just makes us drive around more doesn’t cut a lot of ice with me. Why is an extra hour of daylight going to make you drive more than you would otherwise? I certainly don’t find that the position of the sun in the sky makes much difference to my driving habits.

    Then again, even if there is a large effect and I just don’t see it, this is just a question of scale. Were people less likely to change their driving habits based on what time the sun went down in 1967 than they are in 2007? I’d agree that there are more people with cars, and thus any such effect would be larger, in absolute terms, today. However, I’m not convinced that even if this effect exists, it is proportionally any different than it was in the past.

  5. jennie says:

    I do drive around more when it’s light out– when night falls, unless I need something or am going out for the night, I’m pretty much in for the night– I’ll scrounge around for something to eat instead of running to the grocery store. If it’s still light, I’ll go to the grocery store. Weird psychological thing with me.

    And, yes, people will get in more rounds of golf in the next 3 weeks, NPR said that the golf industry was expecting millions of extra dollars. The barbeque industry as well.

  6. jennie says:

    Whether it saves energy or not, who knows. but I really enjoyed to extra sun yesterday.

  7. BBarron says:

    Mark,
    Yes, of course I’m running Windows XP, and I get the automatic patch updates (I hope). You’re right, it’s the software that matters. My “other” older computer running Windows 2000 did not change the time.
    Golfing in places like NC is a big deal all year round. And since most Congresspersons seem to spend as much time golfing as legislating (witness the recent scandals involving golf junkets to Scotland, etc.), it’s no wonder the GL is so powerful.

  8. Mark says:

    BB,

    Consider me terrified that any golf-related organization is powerful enough in the halls of Congress that we can give it a two-letter abbreviation. May the Saints forfend the day that my Senator thinks that the “G” in GL stands for Golf rather than Gun, for that matter.

  9. Mark says:

    Jennie,

    I’m glad you enjoyed the sun yesterday. I really regret working in a windowless office today, because it’s beautiful outside.

    Do you think that you actually go to the grocery store a larger number of times if it’s light out? Or does it just affect when you make the same number of trips you’d have made anyway? Maybe I’m unusual in that respect, but I think I’m going to go to the store when I run out of food at home, and I’m pretty much always going to get about the same quantity of food when I go (thus setting the next time I’ll go back), regardless of the time of day I make my shopping trip.

  10. akdmyers says:

    Mark,

    I think Jennie’s point was more that she doesn’t like to drive in the dark (correct me if I’m wrong, Jennie!), therefore if it’s dark out, she would rather not go to the store, and is more likely to go if it’s light out, presumably resulting in a larger number of trips.

    At least, that’s how I am. I can get so many more errands done on my way home from work now because it stays light so long, and I can still get a walk in once I get home. I hate driving in the dark more than anything (except maybe flying). My errand-running on my way home doesn’t increase my driving by much, since I’m already out and heading in the direction of the stores, but it does increase it a bit at least.

    I also question whether increasing DST will actually result in any significant energy savings; as Mike points out, energy usage from electric lights probably represents a smaller proportion of total usage today than when DST was first initiated. We’ve been trying to keep our energy use down because our electric bills have skyrocketed since we moved, and keeping lights turned off has much less effect – almost negligible, inc fact, though at this point every little bit helps – than turning off computers, limiting appliance use and keeping the heat turned down.

  11. Mark says:

    Ann,

    It might well be the case for Jennie that she drives more if it’s light out than she would otherwise (again, Jennie, feel free to speak for yourself on this one). However, I’m not certain that even if that is true for her, it’s true in general. It sounds like in your case the timing and order of your errands changes a bit, but your total driving doesn’t alter much (you’d have to run the errands sooner or later).

    As for light bulbs as a percentage of energy consumption, I agree that it’s small. As I noted in the post, the estimate at the time the law was passed was that the change in DST would result in a 1% decrease in consumption. That is due almost entirely to light bulbs (your fridge still runs, no matter how sunny it is). On your electric bill at home, a 1% difference isn’t likely to be very noticeable unless you do very careful bookkeeping. Even then, small fluctuations in temperature, and the resulting changes in demands on your heating and cooling system, are likely to wash out the lights.

    The question remains, however, if in aggregate, across society, there is a noticeable difference. Even if nobody notices the fractional decrease in their own bill, from the perspective of the utility company, a 1% drop in overall demand for a month is likely to make a significant difference in how they operate. That translates to many, many tons of coal nationwide that won’t have to be burned to fire the generators. Assuming, of course, that the 1% drop actually happens.

  12. Mary says:

    Mark,
    Clearly you are not a golfer (I’m not either, but I’m connected to several.) If you drive around on this uncharacteristically beautiful day in our neck of the woods, you will see them everywhere, regardless of some little patches of snow remaining on the ground (or whether they had to sneak onto the course.) I also thought too that I will actually do more driving now. I don’t like driving at night either, but with longer periods of sunlight, I know I will, even though I know I shouldn’t.

  13. Mark says:

    Mary,

    It never fails, of course. I make a comment about snow being on the ground, and suddenly it’s in the high 60s out and sunny. From that perspective, I suppose I should make those kinds of statements more often. It’s a beautiful day, and I wouldn’t mind more like this. I do hear it’s supposed to be less pleasant later in the week, but we’ve seen the last of the snow for a week or two, at least.

    I still find the argument that people will drive more during DST than they would if the sun went down earlier hard to accept. Then again, this is just perhaps because my habits don’t trend in that direction. Am I projecting my own tendencies on humanity at large?

  14. poetloverrebelspy says:

    On a tangential note, I want Mike to chime in here about energy savings from fluorescent bulbs. Australia was considering (or just passed?) legislation that was not going to allow phosphorescent bulbs to be sold anymore. And while I agree that fluorescent bulbs do their bit for the environment and I have a number of them in my apartment, I don’t think I could go 100% fluorescent, especially not in the winter. But does anyone have a number of just how much energy we could save if the entire nation switched?
    Love from Europe, where we’re still Losing Daylight! No wonder I’ve felt a little behind lately . . .

  15. laikal says:

    Some interesting considerations, without regard to how they play into DST and energy:

    Buildings (industrial, residential, and commercial) account for 73% of our total electricity consumption (they also account for 48% of our total GreenHouse Gas [GHG] emission).

    Transportation is around 27% in both categories.

    http://www.architecture2030.org ; knowing is half the battle (Mazria is a bit of a galumph, but his heart is in the right place and his ideas are practicable).

    On the main topic: I can’t seriously buy DST as energy savings.

    Many of these topics are interesting subjects that merit discussion. Perhaps we need a discussion board tied to the “blog”?

  16. Mark says:

    Hilary,

    I think that Mike raised a valid point about the effect of light bulbs in the grand scheme, and Matt’s numbers seem to back this up, especially when combined with Ann’s anecdotal observations about energy conservation in her own home. However, the question of compact florescent bulbs (CFBs) is an interesting topic, in and of itself.

    It is my understanding, from what I read, that color quality and spectrum width have both greatly improved in the last few years. Several people I know who have tried them report that they are much better than they used to be, though there is still a visible difference in the quality of light when compared to incandescent bulbs. A CFB is, however, considerably more efficient than a standard incandescent.

    I worry about legislating on issues like this, however. In part due to competition from CFBs, the energy consumption of incandescent bulbs has been reduced marginally in recent years. In addition, an entirely new variety of high-efficiency incandescents are on their way, though how long it will take to get them out of the research pipeline is an open question at the moment.

    There are economic arguments to be made both for and against the advisability of government mandating efficiency standards. These are most often discussed in the context of automobiles, but the same applies to light bulbs. Setting those economic issues aside, if we decide for environmental reasons that we want to require light bulbs to meet some minimum efficiency, that’s one thing. Writing a law that requires a specific type of light bulb is quite another.

    I’m a big believer in technology, and I have never been comfortable with the concept of writing laws that force people to use a certain technology to the exclusion of any competing technologies. It is my feeling that this is stifling to the sort of innovation that has driven the most important technologies we are all now able to take for granted.

    There are limits to this, of course. Thermonuclear bombs turn out to be highly efficient, as light sources. They pose a variety of risks in other areas, for which reason they are a tightly regulated technology. I’m comfortable with prohibiting the use of dangerous technologies, but to the extent that they are all safe to use, I think any of a wide variety of different solutions to a common problem (such as the efficiency of a light source) should be given equal opportunity to develop and succeed.

  17. akdmyers says:

    Personally, I am terrified that Congress will be dumb enough to outlaw incandescent bulbs. Yes, the fluorescents are more energy-efficient and last longer, and I’m all for energy savings, especially those that can be accomplished with relatively little personal sacrifice. Except that the fluorescent bulbs they sell now give me migraines. I cannot live like that. And even if they continue to improve, like Hilary I’m not sure I could go all fluorescent, especially in winter.

    I would much rather see Mark’s suggestion of requiring some level of minimum efficiency for all light bulbs rather than removing consumer choice entirely. Especially since light quality can affect quality of life so profoundly, yet we don’t even always realize that’s what’s doing it. My boyfriend wanted to switch to fluorescents in our old apartment, so every time a bulb burned out he replaced it with a fluorescent. The one in the overhead light in the bedroom was so bad for my eyes and my headaches that I was getting dressed in the dark rather than turn it on. We finally switched it back to an incandescent. Less noticeable was the lamp in the living room – I hadn’t realized that he had switched it to fluorescent, and for several weeks I was feeling irritable and inexplicably frustrated every evening. It turned out the that fluorescent bulb was flickering so slightly it wasn’t actually visible, but it was messing with my head enough to make me cranky. We changed the bulb and I felt better immediately.

  18. Mark says:

    Ann,

    I suspect that you are more sensitive to this effect than the average person, but you are certainly not alone in the difficulties you have with fluorescent lights. I think the seasonal problems will continue to diminish as they improve broad-spectrum fluorescent bulbs, which shouldn’t be any worse from a seasonal perspective than incandescent bulbs are. As much as I can sympathise with your discomfort, it is an issue that is only tangential to what I think is the bigger problem with legally mandating a particular type of bulb.

    The much larger problem, from my perspective, is that passing a law of that type shuts the door on any other technology which might be developed that can do an even better job than a fluorescent. Even if flicker, yellow tinge, and seasonal mood problems are removed from the equation, there is no guarantee that florescent bulbs are the most efficient bulbs that could exist. In fact, I suspect, most people would agree that on a long enough time line, humanity is absolutely certain to eventually find something that far surpasses them. However, there is no incentive to develop a better light bulb if it was illegal for anybody to use it.

  19. akdmyers says:

    Mark,

    That is an excellent point. I also think there are more people out there who are as sensitive as I am than one would think, though I do acknowledge that we are certainly in the minority of the population. I would just add to your concern about the impact of such lightbulb legislation on technology the concern that it removes consumer choice from the equation, which could have health and possibly other consequences for some segments of the population.

  20. poetloverrebelspy says:

    Mike had been doing a lot of research a couple months ago on fluorescent bulbs, which is why I mentioned him explicitly. Mike???

    And of course I meant *incandescent* bulbs, not phosphorescent ones — that glow-in-the-dark effect isn’t quite as good for reading by 🙂

    Laikal makes the point that building standards are where real changes in efficiency can be made, as the footprint they leave is both large and long. But this wasn’t really about energy savings, was it? And anyone who thinks this new DST is part of any solution to our energy problems doesn’t really have a handle on how big they are.

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