Saturday, March 28, 2009

Turn out the lights!

Two reasons light's on my mind tonight. First, in about half an hour, 20:30 local time, or 8:30 pm for our American cousins, I'm told I should turn my lights out to support the Earth Hour initiative. Secondly, our clocks are set to jump forward for the summer here in Europe. A double shot of light craziness sure to throw my internal clock for a loop. Got me thinking about why we change our clocks twice a year; having always assumed it had something to do with conserving energy it seems very related to the savings and awareness being raised by the big switch off tonight. Or, is it?

Daylight Saving Time (DST), or summer time for our European friends (I know, I'm a crazy Canadian, speak like an American, do everything else like a European), is designed so afternoons have more daylight and mornings less. Being controversial, it hasn't been adopted by the whole world. Many countries have actually used it for awhile and then dropped it which makes it strange that it was extended a couple years ago in the States (and I'm guessing Canada). Then I remembered it was Dubya who signed in the extension, making me even more dubious than I am about tonight's worldwide electricity savings of an hour of darkness in 3,400 towns and cities across 88 countries. Last year the city of Toronto saw electricity usage dip from 2885 megawatts at 8 pm, already down from the normal 3000 (probably cuz most of the big consumers had started powering down) to 2738 megawatts by 8:54, an 8.7% drop, easily exceeding the 5% goal.

It's 20:30 and I've just switched off all my lights (had difficulty digging up a candle) and about half the lights in the other flats in my courtyard are still on. Should I start throwing rocks or just count on the savings we make changing our clocks? Oddly, the US government passed the plan that called for a new energy-impact study to be commissioned after the new energy bill that extended DST by a month became law in 2007. The last major study done before that in the US in 1970 showed DST saved about 1% overall, making the 5% savings worldwide for an hour seem merely symbolic. However, this world is a much different place than 40 years ago; energy usage patterns are no exception. The new study found that the total energy savings throughout the period of Daylight Saving Time add up to 17 trillion Btu of primary energy consumption, which was only .02 percent of the country’s total use in 2007. A lot of trouble to light a city of 150,000. Besides the electricity, proponents say there is less crime, fewer traffic fatalities, more recreation time and increased economic activity.

While Benjamin Franklin is credited with coming up with the idea of daylight saving in 1784 to conserve candles, many think it isn't worth the hassle today, and in fact may actually ultimately increase energy use. In a study done in Indiana in 2006 when they instituted daylight saving statewide for the first time (before then, daylight time confusingly was in effect in just a handful of Indiana’s counties) Matthew Kotchen and his colleague Laura Grant unexpectedly found that daylight time led to a 1 percent overall rise in residential electricity use, costing the state an extra $9 million. But it's good for golf! The golf industry told Congress in 1986 that an extra month of daylight saving was worth up to $400 million annually in extra sales and fees. Retailers in sports and recreation are some of DST's biggest supporters, so I've got to lose an hour's sleep tonight and remember that EST becomes EDT, Central Standard Time (CST) becomes Central Daylight Time (CDT), Mountain.. you get the idea.

The push for DST came with last century's world wars. They felt it helped to save energy for war production by taking advantage of the later hours of daylight between April and October. Therefore it was instituted nationally in the US for the war years, but during the interwar period and since WWII the choice of whether or not to observe has been made by the community. Farmers hate it, explaining Indiana's late adoption and Saskatchewan's continued non-use; Arizona (except some Indian Reservations), Hawaii, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and American Samoa are other American locations still opting out. Europe has been doing it since after WWI where Summer Time begins the last Sunday in March and runs through the last Sunday in October. Annoyingly, this does not directly coincide with Daylight Savings in the United States. Consequently, time variants between nations do not stay uniform year-round. Around the world most nation's ignore it with only one, Kyrgyzstan, observing it all year. 130 countries don't observe DST at all, 77 have at least one location observing and only 66 where the entire country turns their clocks this year.

It's the messing with the body clock that I can take. We're already slaves to the clocks on the wall (or more likely our phones and computers) but we're also forced to adjust a couple times a year, manually (that damn clock on the stove!) and physiologically. Remember that although we can stay in the bar an hour longer in October we get an hour less light at a time of year when the amount of daylight is growing smaller daily. By the winter solstice most people don't get any sunlight as they go and return to and from work in the dark. School buses are on the roads loaded with kids well before sunrise. Researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and their colleagues looked at myocardial infarction rates in Sweden since 1987 and found that the number of heart attacks rose about 5 percent during the first week of Summer Time. In the October 30, 2008, New England Journal of Medicine, they suggested that this rise may result from the disruption of sleep patterns and biological rhythms. The near month difference in observation dates between Europe and North America causes huge headaches for communication and business, like the airlines. Religious observances and calendars tied to sunrise and sunset times are also be affected. Later sunrise during the extension periods hinders observant Jews' ability to pray at sunup and still make it to work by 9 a.m.

Well, it's after 10pm now, lights back on, noticed fewer lights on in the courtyard but it's probably due to people going out, it is Saturday night and all, of which there will be an hour less than normal tonight. There's so many other factors that aren't equally predictable when figuring the pros and cons of DST, not the least of which are the losses during winter. The Australian idea to turn the lights off for an hour tonight seems like an easier benefit to measure; here's hoping they reach their goals and get good press tomorrow. While the thrifty Franklin suggested Paris could save nearly 100 million livre tournois a year with DST, we're wasting plenty more with our excessively energy reliant lifestyles.