Before I went to bed last night, I double-checked my alarm and then set another one. My son was at a sleepover and had a soccer game an hour away first thing in the morning. It’s a challenge at the best of times to coordinate schedules but especially today: Time sprung ahead in some parts of the world, ours included, for Daylight Saving Time (DST).
Before 1966, laws setting dates for DST were somewhat fluid. The United States officially adopted DST during World War I—after Germany did so—but the unpopular law was soon removed. It continued to be observed sporadically in some states until World War II when President Franklin D. Roosevelt again signed temporary DST into law. As before, the law didn’t continue after the war.
That changed in 1966 when President Lyndon Johnson signed a bill into law calling for DST to begin on the last Sunday of April and end on the last Sunday of October each year. The dates were tweaked again, 20 years later, under Ronald Reagan, who amended DST to begin at 2 a.m. on the first Sunday of April and end at 2 a.m. on the last Sunday of October. Just about 20 years later, President Bush signed the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (downloads as a pdf) which had as its short title, “To ensure jobs for our future with secure, affordable, and reliable energy.” In addition to a number of tax breaks, the law also extended DST by four weeks—that’s why we “fall back” in November now instead of October.
The beginnings of DST are sometimes credited to Benjamin Franklin. The idea appeared in his 1784 essay, “An Economical Project,” though many are quick to point out that it was considered to be satire. In the essay, Franklin calculates the hours spent burning candles and declared:
An immense sum! that the city of Paris might save every year, by the economy of using sunshine instead of candles.
Whether Franklin actually inspired DST in the U.S. may be a matter of debate, but it’s clear that the underlying concept is what drives DST today. It’s all about energy policy and money. That’s contrary to popular opinion, which suggests DST was adopted in America in order to accommodate farmers. In fact, according to Tufts University professor Michael Downing, “That’s the complete inverse of what’s true. The farmers were the only organized lobby against daylight saving in the history of the country.” Why? Among other reasons, it left them with an hour less sunlight to get crops to market.
Instead, the DST has been linked to energy policy and saving money, often accompanied by tax changes. The Energy Policy Act of 2005—the one that extended the DST—was no exception. The Act took several years to nail down, largely because of a controversy over whether energy policy should favor fossil fuels or solar and wind power. The resulting energy policy incentives were to be implemented through a mishmash of new rules and tax credits.
One popular tax credit in the 2005 Act was for fuel-efficient vehicles (conventional hybrid vehicles). The credit, which allowed tax breaks on qualifying vehicles, expired in 2010. Tax credits for alternative vehicles still exist, including a credit for qualified two-wheel plug-in electric vehicles that was extended through 2017 as part of the former extenders package. The credit was not extended for the 2018 tax year. However, if you acquired a qualifying vehicle in 2017 but placed it in service in 2018, you may still be able to take advantage of the credit for the 2018 tax year; see the instructions for form 8936, Qualified Plug-in Electric Drive Motor Vehicle Credit (Including Qualified Two-Wheeled Plug-in Electric Vehicles), for more information.
The 2005 Act also put forward a federal tax credit for residential energy efficient property. Initially, the credit included qualified solar electric systems; qualified solar water heaters; qualified fuel cell property; qualified small wind energy property; and qualified geothermal heat pumps. Some of that credit expired after 2016, but the credit for solar electric property and solar water heating property was extended through December 31, 2021 (with a gradual step-down).
Energy efficiency improvements to residential homes, including the purchase of certain doors, windows, insulation and the like, were also part of the 2005 Act. Initially, homeowners who made qualifying improvements were generally entitled to a tax credit equal to 10% of the costs, up to a lifetime limit of $500. The credit expired at the end of 2016. However, a tax credit for certain qualifying purchases made in 2017 was re-upped retroactively as part of the 2018 Tax Extenders Agreement; the credits were not extended after January 1, 2018.
Energy-related tax credits, including those for nonbusiness energy property; two-wheeled plug-in electric vehicles and energy-efficient homes, were included in the Tax Extender and Disaster Relief Act of 2019 (you can find it here as a PDF) introduced by Senate finance chairman Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) earlier this year. That bill was read for a second time in the Senate but has not advanced.
Tax credits often “sweeten the deal” for other policy initiatives, which is likely why the DST was extended as part of the 2005 Act. The idea behind the extension was that, by extending daylight hours, we would also cut energy consumption. If the day seems longer because it’s light out longer, it should follow that there would be less demand for electricity in the evenings. But that may not be true: It may actually cost us money.
While studies indicate a slight change in demand in the evenings, some studies have indicated that any savings are offset by more energy demand in the morning. And you can’t count out the time spent changing clocks. In 2010, Utah State University economist William F. Shughart II suggested that turning the clocks forward and backward each year results in $1.7 billion of lost opportunity cost each year in the U.S. alone. His calculations assumed that each person over the age of 18 spent about 10 minutes changing clocks instead of doing something more productive. Of course, in a digital-centric world, that number should go down. Should. But as I try to figure out which clocks inside my home actually have the right time, I’m not so sure that’s the case.
Many Americans don’t see the benefit of DST: Just 36% of those polled find it necessary. In 2013, nearly 20% of those polled believed wrongly that you’d move the clocks backward on Sunday for DST (spring ahead, folks) or aren’t quite sure what to do at all. As a result, a whopping 16% of Americans claim DST has made them early or late for an appointment because they didn’t set their clocks the right way (I feel your pain, America).
And it may even cost us hard cash. According to a study by JPMorgan Chase, there is a drop in economic activity when clocks move back (you can read the study here as a PDF).
It’s even more confusing because not everyone in the U.S. observes DST. Hawaii and Arizona (except for residents of the Navajo Nation) do not, nor do American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands. Last year, a Florida bill to nix DST, the Sunshine Protection Act, passed (33-2) and was approved by the governor. The problem? By federal law, the state still requires approval from the feds. To end the confusion, three Florida legislators (Senators Marco Rubio and Rick Scott and Representative Vern Buchanan) have reintroduced a federal law, also called the Sunshine Protection Act, to make DST permanent all year. If passed, the legislation would apply to states that participate in DST, which most states observe for eight months out of the year; last year, the bill failed to advance out of committee.
For now, DST is an annual annoyance: It’s always the second Sunday in March. So that means I’ll see you back here next year around the same time—assuming I finally get all of those clocks set.