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Daylight Saving: Beat the Clock

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Almost a century ago, a letter-writer to the New York Times compared daylight saving to "cheating yourself at solitaire and telling yourself you won."

That's the point of daylight saving -- to pretend you're beating the clock and besting nature while you sit on a still-sunny beach at 8:00 p.m. in the middle of July. Even though you sort of know it's actually only 7:00 p.m.

This deception might be benign. It might even be beneficial. But to get in on this bargain, do we have to go on buying the preposterous idea that we are saving 100,000 barrels of oil with every additional day of daylight saving, which Congress has been peddling since 1975?

For the record, a 1975 Department of Transportation (DOT) report estimated that daylight saving could reduce domestic electricity consumption by one percent per day. If this optimistic goal is ever achieved (we've never come close), it will have no positive impact on our consumption of oil. More than 95 percent of our electricity is produced with coal, hydroelectric, and nuclear power.

Plus, while electricity use often does fall during the first month or two, it actually increases over the whole daylight-saving period. A superb analysis of electricity demand in Indiana after the statewide adoption of daylight saving in 2006 (conducted by Matthew Kotchen of U.C. Santa Barbara) demonstrated that Hoosiers had paid more than $8 million for their extra hour of evening sun.

Congress commissioned a separate Department of Energy study in 2007, after extending the daylight -- saving period to eight months. (Oddly, we now spring forward in wintertime.) DOE turned up an electricity-saving of 0.46 to 0.48 percent.

This good news -- half of one percent is not nothing -- was tempered by a few confusing caveats. The electricity saving only applied to the four additional weeks of daylight saving -- three in March and one in November. Over the full eight-month period, daylight saving was likely a net loser thanks, in part, to our reliance on air-conditioning in the summer. And the DOE study pointedly excluded the effect on demand for heating fuels, which surely increased during those four weeks, as sunless winter mornings make for colder homes, schools, and offices.

Most confusing of all, DOE reported no significant change in gasoline consumption. Just one year earlier, economist Peter Tertzakian had identified a one-percent jump in gasoline demand, which added up to 266,000 additional barrels of imported crude per day of extended daylight saving--that's real oil, not the hypothetical DOT variety.

Who's fooling whom? Since the 1930s, the petroleum industry has known that daylight saving increases driving and demand for gasoline. It's no secret that when Americans go to the beach, or, mall, or ballpark on sunlit evenings, we don't walk.

The National Association of Convenience Stores -- whose 100,000-plus locations account for three-quarters of all the gasoline sold in this country -- isn't trying to fool anyone. It stages an annual event on Capitol Hill, which the lobby itself bills as "a thank-you to Congress for federal adoption of daylight saving."

The point is, I'm not feeling so grateful. Don't get me wrong. I'm all for a long summer days at the beach.

But it is March, and it is cold here in New England, and I'm mindful of the Native American who concluded that daylight saving time is like cutting an inch off the bottom of your blanket and sewing it to the top to make the blanket longer.

As a national energy policy, this seems like a foolish waste of time.

Michael Downing is the author of "Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time" and many other books, including a new memoir, "Life with Sudden Death." He teaches creative writing at Tufts University. You can read more about his work at michaeldowningbooks.com