Daylight Saving Time: Is The Joke On Us?

This weekend marks the start of U.S. Daylight Saving Time for 2016. Chances are, you’ll spend a few minutes Sunday fumbling through the time-setting steps for the digital clocks in your home and car.

And you might ask, “Why do we bother?”

Don’t blame it on Ben Franklin

A common belief is that Daylight Saving Time was all Ben Franklin’s idea. That’s partly true.

Franklin did indeed propose an idea, in 1784, that seems to have inspired Daylight Saving Time. But it was in a satirical essay suggesting late-sleeping Parisians wake up earlier in the morning and go to bed earlier at night. This way, more of their day would be lit by the sun rather than by valuable candles.

Franklin was the first U.S. ambassador to France. So we assume that the essay was intended as a friendly joke—and that the French had a good sense of humor about it. At any rate, over the years, Franklin’s joke seems to have contributed to the urban legend that he’s responsible.

Don’t blame it on farmers, either

Prompted by wartime desperation, the push to enact Daylight Saving Time began in earnest a century ago. It was introduced in 1916 in Germany, as an effort to help save energy and resources during World War I. The British and Americans followed shortly thereafter, for similar reasons.

In the United States, Daylight Saving Time has had a rocky history. Congress repealed it shortly after the war, under pressure from farmers who found the shift disruptive to their routines (contrary to the common belief that Daylight Saving Time benefits farmers). It came back briefly in World War II, only to be repealed yet again after hostilities ended in 1945.

Finally, Daylight Saving Time became the law of the land in 1966, with just a couple of states opting out. The start and end dates have been tweaked over the years. Congress set the current dates—the second Sunday in March and first Sunday in November—through the Energy Policy Act of 2005. That legislation also introduced the solar Investment Tax Credit, which has since provided economic incentives for Americans choosing to power their lives with solar energy.

Does changing our clocks really save energy?

Since Daylight Saving Time started to catch on in the early 20th century, proponents have frequently cited saving energy as its primary benefit. The time shift means there’s more daylight later in the day, when people are more active. And that lets them delay having to use electric lights and other resources.

That’s the thinking, at least. Recent data draws a conclusion that’s less clear.

A 2009 study by the Department of Energy found that Daylight Saving Time conserved about 1.3 billion kilowatt-hours nationally that year. However, a 2008 study in Indiana suggested that Daylight Saving Time actually increased energy use in the state by 1 percent. Yet another study by the California Energy Commission found that the extension of Daylight Saving Time mandated by the Energy Policy Act had little to no impact on energy use in the state.

Other studies have suggested that geography makes a difference—that energy savings in cooler climates are offset by energy demand in warmer climates. One economist even suggested that the time spent resetting clocks and adjusting schedules twice a year costs Americans $1.7 billion in “opportunity cost”—time we could spend doing more productive things.

It seems the jury is still out on Daylight Saving Time. One wonders what Ben Franklin—with his knack for practicality combined with a sense of humor—would think of all this.

Proven ways to save energy

There are, of course, proven ways to save energy. They range from getting more out of your home’s built-in features, to doing simple things every day, to powering your home with clean, renewable, solar energy (hint: SolarCity makes going solar easy).

Perhaps in future years, we’ll see the light (pun intended). We’ll decide once and for all that Daylight Saving Time is an idea whose time has passed. For now, we’re stuck with it.

So, for what it’s worth—and on behalf of all of us at SolarCity—remember to set your clocks forward this weekend.

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