These days we don’t set back clocks very much any more, but instead our cell phones tell us that it must be the end of daylight saving time (although our cell phones do set us back quite a bit).

Dali clocks
Dali: The Persistence of Memory

The idea of daylight saving is famously attributed to Benjamin Franklin, but it was first introduced only about a hundred years ago. It has been policy in most of the US for about 50 years.

But does it really save energy? Surprisingly little research seems to have been done about that question. A 2008 NBER working paper considers the issue, taking advantage of a “natural experiment” in Indiana, where some counties used DST while others did not until 2006, when DST was sanctioned for all of the state. (Since it is often not possible to create lab experiments to resolve empirical questions in economics, we must rely on so-called “natural experiments” and a mysterious practice called “econometrics.”) Here is what the authors, Matthew J. Kotchen and Laura E. Grant, find:

The history of DST has been long and controversial. Throughout its implementation during World Wars I and II, the oil embargo of the 1970s, more consistent practice today, and recent extensions, the primary rationale for DST has always been the promotion of energy conservation. Nevertheless, there is surprisingly little evidence that DST actually saves energy. This paper takes advantage of a unique natural experiment in the state of Indiana to provide the first empirical estimates of DST effects on electricity consumption in the United States since the mid-1970s. The results are also the first-ever empirical estimates of DST’s overall effect.

Our main finding is that—contrary to the policy’s intent—DST results is an overall increase in residential electricity demand. Estimates of the overall increase in consumption are approximately 1 percent and highly statistically significant. We also find that the effect is not constant throughout the DST period: there is some evidence for an increase in electricity demand at the spring transition into DST, but the real increases come in the fall when DST appears to increase consumption between 2 and 4 percent. These findings are generally consistent with simulation results that point to a tradeoff between reducing demand for lighting and increasing demand for heating and cooling. According to the dates of DST practice prior to 2007, we estimate a cost to Indiana households of $9 million per year in increased electricity bills. Estimates of the social costs due to increased pollution emissions range from $1.7 to $5.5 million per year.

Addendum: Watch your step!