Alberta could get rid of daylight saving time

Day-lit evenings mean more time for soccer and patio parties, but does the province want to be two hours ahead of B.C.?
The sun sets as commuters head home in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, Jan. 13, 2015. (THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES/Jeff McIntosh)

At some point Sunday, if he gets around to it, Thomas Dang will adjust the digital display on the stove in his Edmonton condo, and step on a stool to dial his wall clock one hour forward. It could be one of the last times the provincial NDP legislator and his fellow four million Albertans go through this ritual of sacrificing an hour of sleep to the daylight-saving gods.

The 21-year-old MLA has been consulting on the Alberta government’s behalf about how, more so than whether, to move the province off the twice-yearly dance between Mountain standard time and Mountain daylight time. An announcement will likely come soon after the March 12 switch, and most signals point to Alberta yoking its clock to long-time daylight saving holdout Saskatchewan’s, staying in year-round central standard time (or MDT).

Dang says more than 30,000 Albertans replied to his online survey, plus a flood of other phone calls and emails. “Overwhelmingly, people are ready to stop changing their clocks,” he says. Then the question shifts to whether Albertans should permanently move toward sunnier evenings (Central standard time) or sunnier mornings (Mountain). Dang says the public arguments for the bright-night option are extended recreation time for kids’ soccer and camping in the summer evenings, and restaurant patios enjoying more hours of light. In an interview, the New Democrat offers tellingly flimsy rationale on the other side: that Mountain time is the geographically proper zone for Alberta, while others want to retain the distinctly named time-band “because there is some sort of attachment to the mountains.”

The NDP government, languishing lately in the polls, having just enacted a carbon tax and about to reveal this week another red-ink budget, could use a populist measure that costs next to nothing. Scrapping semi-annual time changes that throw kids’ sleep patterns out of whack fits neatly into that category. But by leaving clocks sprung forward in perpetuity, the New Democrats would be doing something manifestly un-New Democrat: moving in the opposite direction of an idea that would curb energy usage, instead bowing to lobbying from businesses who want to protect their bottom line. Yeah, this would be just another pro-business, anti-environment decision by … the Rachel Notley NDP?

Governments brought in daylight-saving time throughout Europe and North America last century as a measure to save nighttime energy use, by delaying the need for artificial light in the summer (farmers, often blamed for the time-switching, have actually always opposed it; hens and milk cows don’t adjust well to farm workers’ abrupt schedule changes). A study of Ontario electricity patterns showed the switch worked as it should, decreasing power demand by 1.5 per cent, with most of the reduction coming from the spring switch. But here’s the thing: the differences between Ontario and Alberta extend beyond the westerners’ love of rodeo and petroleum wells. Blake Shaffer, an economics PhD candidate at the University of Calgary, crunched the power grid records between 2000 and 2015, and found that Alberta’s energy consumption actually goes up by 1.6 per cent around the March move to standard, and by 0.9 per cent over daylight time’s whole eight-month duration.

The reason it’s different in Alberta, Shaffer concludes, is two-fold: the province’s northerly location means later March sunrises than in Ontario, while Albertans tend to rise and commute earlier than in the rest of Canada. Shaffer, a C.D. Howe Institute fellow-in-residence, found a range of energy-use fluctuations around the country. B.C. and Nova Scotia power consumption drops after the spring-forward, and New Brunswick behaves more like Alberta.

This effect is significant, says Shaffer. Moving to year-round standard time would equal the savings of all Alberta home switching light-bulbs to more efficient LEDs, or up to $50 million. But if the province goes the other way, as the NDP seems to prefer, electricity usage would head in the opposite direction. It would be a curious call for a government ushering in a suite of efficiency measures, including an LED home-installation program. Dang is fashioning his defence, saying the government-plugged shift off conventional bulbs will diminish the past consumption patterns of daylight time. “If those light bulbs are 80 per cent more efficient, suddenly that one per cent (usage change) becomes 0.2 per cent,” he says. “There’s also things like discretionary spending in the evenings; do people spend more money if they’re out and about—does that contribute to the economy?”

The NDP backbencher says he’s heard plenty from urban business groups, golf courses and others about keeping the brighter evenings. North America’s retail sector had originally pushed for adoption of daylight saving, and helped persuade the Bush administration to extend the period by several weeks in a post-9/11 energy policy act (Canada went along with the shift). There’s not only a retail benefit to that extra time before dark: a study found daylight time leads people to burn 10 per cent more calories because of outdoor recreation, though Shaffer cautions that results in America may not be the same further north, where summer nights are already comparatively long. Weigh those factors to the downsides of the shift itself, including a marked increase in fatal vehicle accidents right after the spring time change, and heart attacks linked to sleep disruption.

It is, notes Shaffer, a question pitting “morning people versus afternoon people,” and as the NDP government nears its decision, lovers of those summer nights seem to be carrying the day. Tory MLA Richard Starke, who proposed a shift as well, agrees that brighter evenings are the popular choice.

Yet the extended hours for summer frolicking and patio pints could come at a brutal price during an Alberta winter, delaying December sunrise to 9:40 a.m. in Calgary and 9:50 a.m. in Edmonton. Plus, there would be a sudden two-hour time-zone gap between Jasper, Alta., and Valemount, B.C., towns on either side of the Continental Divide. Albertans may never have to change their clocks again, but the other adjustments could bring their own aggravations.