Can 'time' fix energy problems?

Power-strapped states urge Congress to let them extend daylight saving time.

Ben Franklin had the idea first: Why not conserve colonialists' candles and barrels of whale oil by resetting clocks to get more daylight in late afternoon and evening?

The concept didn't kick in until World War I, when Germany, Britain, and the US twisted their clock hands ahead to get more daylight for war production.

Now, as California and parts of the West are panting from heat and threatened with blackouts, Franklin's idea is getting renewed scrutiny. In a bid to save energy, some states are asking Congress to let California, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington stay on Daylight Saving Time (DST) longer than the rest of the country.

Last week, the California Legislature voted for a resolution urging such federal approval, and in Massachusetts, a grass-roots campaign is percolating under the Capitol dome. Other states, such as Kansas, are shelving plans to abolish DST, in a bid to help consumers cut energy costs.

While the idea was floated after blackouts zapped California last summer, debate had stalled over whether it would actually produce any power or cost savings. A US Department of Energy study in the 1970s found that the nation's electricity use drops 1 percent each day on DST. But others say such findings could not be replicated amid the more complicated energy grids of today - and that conservation efforts such as those in California, which have cut energy use as much as 10 percent, may have already skimmed off all the potential gains in DST energy savings.

But now, a study by the California Energy Commission (CEC) is providing new ammunition for DST advocates. Its findings indicate the state could shave 0.5 percent to 3 percent off its peak electricity use, and as much as $1 billion off its power bill, by extending DST later into the fall, starting earlier in the spring, or keeping it year round.

"We found that, indeed, there would be significant savings any time, any month of the year," says Thom Kelly, assistant executive director for CEC.

The report, released in late May, says that extending DST to cover the late-October to early April period, when the state usually observes standard time, would save California an average of 1,100 megawatts, or 3 percent at the peak. Total daily power consumption would drop by about 3,400 megawatt-hours, or 0.5 percent, mostly as a result of fewer hours of lighting and heating in homes.

Financial benefits would depend on the cost of electricity, but the state collectively could save as much as $350 million during the winter and nearly $1 billion if clocks jump ahead two hours the rest of the year. While the power savings are "marginal," significant money savings materialize because electricity use would shift to low-demand hours of the morning and reduce electricity use during hours of higher demand, according to the report.

"We feel similar savings would occur for any state besides California that moves to DST," adds CEC's Mr. Kelly.

Harder than it looks?

But extending daylight saving time may not be as straightforward as it seems. Though it has strong backing from California Sens. Barbara Boxer (D) and Dianne Feinstein (D), debate has been heated. Some states, such as Montana, which exports most of its energy, aren't necessarily eager for neighboring states to move to such a system. There are ramifications, too, for schedulers - from media to airlines to bus service - that are not addressed in the report.

Last month on Capitol Hill, a House committee on science held hearings on the proposal, and more are scheduled in coming months. Until then, battle lines are being drawn.

"DST works. It's that simple," says John Michael Byrne, director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Delaware in Newark.

Others are less sanguine, holding that the idea diverts attention from pressing concerns such as conservation and finding new sources of energy.

"It has the potential of creating a lot of confusion if it is not done with some manner of uniformity," says Michael Shames, president of the Utility Consumers Action Network in San Diego. "It isn't a crank idea and will help reduce consumption during peak evenings, but it won't solve the underlying problem. It fits under the 'helps but no panacea' category."

Double time

An even more far-reaching idea called double daylight saving time - moving the clock forward two hours during spring, summer, and autumn months - is also under discussion in some quarters. The state would save an average of 220 megawatts, or 0.5 percent, at the April to October peak.

But some analysts say the idea compounds the problems of too much time-switching.

"A two-hour change would be a nightmare," says Mark Czarnecki, president of the Electric Utility Benchmarking Association in Houston. "We do a lot of business with those in Australia who are springing forward in time every time we fall back. To make the shift double that would be way too chaotic."

A final drawback, say others, is the safety of children and school buses in darkened early hours.

"Compared to the savings we could achieve from an even modestly enlightened energy policy, it is but a trifle," adds Hal Harvey, president of the Energy Foundation.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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