The Best Policy

The Simplest Way To Solve the California Power Crisis

Turn your clocks forward. 

We have been reminded again and again: There are no easy solutions to the California electricity disaster and the U.S. energy crisis. But there is one: expanding daylight-saving time.

Adjusting daylight-saving time is not mentioned in the vice president’s magisterial energy report or trumpeted by California Gov. Gray Davis, though it’s much cheaper than anything they propose. Environmentalists ignore it, though it’s green as can be. But a few legislators are beginning to recognize that rejiggering daylight-saving time could be a painless—and immediate—way to keep the lights on in California. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, the chairman of the House Energy and Air Quality Subcommittee, has included a daylight-saving time provision in his energy bill. And the California state legislature recently passed a resolution urging Congress to allow the Golden state to make broad adjustments to daylight-saving time.

Daylight-saving time is the April tradition of advancing our clocks one hour so that the sun sets later in the evening. In October, clocks fall back an hour to regular time, ensuring that winter mornings are not too dark. Like time zones, daylight-saving time is governed by the federal government. Congress may alter daylight-saving through legislation. The president and the secretary of transportation can also adjust it in an emergency. Current proposals include pushing clocks ahead two hours instead of one—known as “double-daylight-saving time”—and making daylight-saving effective all year. Doing both—making it year-round and doubling daylight-saving—would trim electricity bills the most.

Changes to daylight-saving time would cut demand for megawatts by shifting more sunlight into the evening—when electricity consumption is at its peak—discouraging people from clicking on their lamps for a couple of hours. California alone could cut power usage 3.4 percent and save hundreds of millions of dollars by expanding daylight-saving time.

Altering daylight-saving time to save power would not be a revolutionary measure. From its inception, daylight-saving time has been viewed as a method of energy conservation. Benjamin Franklin is credited with conceiving it: In 1784, he wrote an essay from Paris lamenting how much summer sunlight was squandered on the early mornings, forcing a gluttonous waste of candles and oil in the evenings. The practice wasn’t adopted by the United States until 1918, when we pushed clocks forward as a wartime cost-cutting measure. It was dropped the following year because of a crushing public outcry, but President Franklin Roosevelt embraced it again during the next world war. He made it year-round from 1942 to 1945 and called it “War Time.” After the war, daylight-saving time varied from place to place until Congress passed the Uniform Time Act in 1966. That law requires all states observing daylight-saving to begin (and end) the time shift on the same date.

Under the law, states can choose to forgo daylight-saving time—and some (Arizona, Hawaii, and the Eastern Time Zone of Indiana) currently do. (Democratic Gov. Frank O’Bannon has tried to get all of Indiana to adopt it because, he says, other governors make fun of him.)

In 1973, Congress, in an attempt to weather the OPEC oil crisis, imposed year-round daylight-saving time for two years. During that period, electricity consumption fell by about 1 percent. The last change to daylight-saving came in 1986, when Congress moved the start date from the fourth Sunday in April to the first Sunday in April. This shift reduces U.S. oil consumption by about 300,000 barrels a year.

So, how would adjusting the clocks help California? The California Energy Commission completed a study last month evaluating the effects of daylight-saving time. The commission found that not only would energy consumption drop 3 percent if standard time were eliminated, but that electricity use would shift significantly to times when demand wasn’t as high, reducing pressure on the power grid. Double-daylight-saving would further lower power usage at peak times.

“If Congress is looking at creating energy saving, this is the way to do it,” says Tom Kelly, the assistant executive director at the California Energy Commission. “The reason we did the study”—the first of its kind—”was to show Congress that there is a quantitatively identifiable benefit.”

Some Republican lawmakers say they like using the time structure to abate the California energy crunch. Perhaps more notably, farmers-advocacy groups, which have traditionally opposed daylight-saving time, say they wouldn’t block its expansion now. Because farmers follow the sun, not the clocks, they have to begin work later and end work later when the clock turns ahead. Farmers in California don’t object today because, as one farming industry official put it, they’ll “support anything that can be done to reduce the likelihood of rolling blackouts.” Some Americans also resent daylight-saving because it forces children to start for school (and adults to start for work) in darkness during late spring and early fall. This problem would be exacerbated if daylight-saving is extended to the entire year.

Despite the absence of any significant opposition, daylight-saving adjustments seem unlikely—for partisan reasons rather than principled ones. Barton’s energy bill, which also includes energy provisions more controversial than the daylight-saving shift, doesn’t have much Democratic support. And a bill by Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., that would temporarily allow Western states to reconfigure daylight-saving is bottled up in a Republican-controlled subcommittee.

“There isn’t a whole lot of interest in the Republican Party to do anything about California—even if it means doing something as simple as letting us change our clocks,” Sherman says.