03/07/2008 02:36 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Toothpaste Plus Snake Oil Equals Daylight Saving

Congress didn't do its math homework. March 1 was the deadline for its
report on the energy savings we achieved last year by extending
daylight saving time from seven to eight months. Congress promised the
report, and a substantial savings in oil, when it passed the 2005
Energy Act.

Let's give Congress a pass on this assignment. Please.

We have the data. Recent studies have shown that daylight saving
doesn't save energy. The most compelling was just published by two
University of California at Santa Barbara researchers. They analyzed
meter readings in Indiana over a three-year period, during which the
first statewide mandate for daylight saving took effect, forcing all
Indiana citizens to spring forward for the first time. I hope the
Hoosiers enjoyed the later sunset times; they cost $8.6 million.
Residential customers consumed 1 to 4 percent more electricity than
they did on standard time.

Congress isn't likely to endorse this new math. In 1986, and again in
2005, Congress promised we would save 100,000 barrels of oil a day,
based on a 1974 Department of Transportation study of Nixon's
disastrous experiment with year-round daylight saving, which estimated
that wintertime daylight saving had the potential to reduce electricity
demand by one percent. Clearly, that potential has dried up; the recent
Indiana study cites widespread air-conditioning use as one new factor
in electricity demand. And we wouldn't save 100,000 barrels of oil
even if we did reduce demand because almost all domestic electricity is
generated not with oil but with coal, nuclear, and hydroelectric power.

We don't need another Congressional report. The statistics that
actually fuel this policy appear in several published volumes of House
and Senate Hearings. Check out the 1985 edition. As Congress debated
an additional seven weeks of daylight saving (it ultimately passed a
one-month extension), lobbyists representing $135 billion in retail
sales formed the Daylight Saving Time Coalition. The proposed
extension, they testified,could net $400 million in additional revenues
for the golf industry, and $150 million in sales of barbecue grills and
briquettes, just for starters.

Give Americans more light in the evening, and we will go out to the
golf course or the mall--in our cars. Congress has never quantified the
impact on gasoline consumption. But last March, after we shoved our
clocks ahead, gasoline prices began to rise, and so did demand. This
was predictable. In 1930, the petroleum industry funded the first
statewide referendum on daylight saving in California, correctly
betting on an increase in pleasure driving.

The evidence is overwhelming. Daylight saving is wasteful energy
policy. But if we force Congress to learn its lesson this year, we
will pay. Remember the costly confusion with transportation,
communications, and all scheduled commerce last year? The airline
industry squandered millions renegotiating international landing and
takeoff times when the United States unilaterally altered its
daylight-saving dates. Congress has threatened repeal the extension
and change the dates again if it finds no energy savings.

Of course, Congress should do its homework. But in lieu of that
overdue report, I suggest a history assignment.

After our nation's contentious initial experiment with daylight
saving--allegedly to save fuel during World War I--most Americans were
eager to return to standard time. Not Sidney Colgate. The
soap-and-toothpaste magnate of Colgate & Company, forerunner of
Colgate-Palmolive, testified at the 1919 House Hearings on the repeal
of daylight saving. Colgate obscured his retail interest by raising the
patriotic issue of conservation. "There is a vast saving in coal and
wood, but that fact might go without question," he said, setting the
low standard for proof that survives to this day. "There are hundreds
of thousands and even millions of tons of coal saved annually by this
daylight-saving bill."

Questioner: It does save a large amount of coal?
Colgate: Yes, sir; there is no question about that.

Q: Used in the manufacture of gas and electric light?

C: Yes, sir.

Q: Have you looked into that?

C: Well, it is a self-evident fact, and there are some things we know and that you know perfectly well, and yet we may not have exact figures on them. I know that in our house we light our electric lights an hour later than otherwise.

Q: Don't you light them an hour earlier in the morning?

C: Yes; but we do not get up that soon. I do not mean to say that because we are of the privileged class in our particular house, but I will guarantee that most of the people . . . do not use electric lights in the morning at all . . . .

Q: Do you save any more coal during the summer if the hour is changed than without its being changed?

C: If you start your light in Washington an hour later.

Q: Yes; but you are not burning electric light during the time this is operative, as you have just told one of the members of this committee.

C: I am sorry that I am so dense that I cannot explain this . . . It does not do everything, and does not save all the coal in the country, but it saves quite a little. I know it was thought so, and that was not questioned at the time of the war, when we wanted to save coal. People thought we were saving coal at that time, and I am sure we were.

Michael Downing's most recent book is Spring Forward: The Annual
Madness of Daylight Saving Time. He teaches creative writing at Tufts
University. Read more about his work at