Chang­ing the clocks not a waste of time

The Irish Times - Business - - FRONT PAGE - John Fitzger­ald

The sun dial was one of the ear­li­est pieces of so­lar-pow­ered tech­nol­ogy, dat­ing back about 3,500 years. While re­li­able time­keep­ing has been avail­able us­ing clocks since the 18th cen­tury, the po­si­tion of the sun in the sky still de­ter­mines our ap­proach to time. The point at which the sun is at its zenith over Green­wich in Lon­don is de­fined as midday in the UK and other coun­tries us­ing Green­wich Mean Time (GMT).

Since 1884, the in­ter­na­tional stan­dard for time zones is based on the merid­ian through Green­wich. Pre­vi­ously in­di­vid­ual coun­tries and re­gions op­er­ated their time sys­tems from in­di­vid­ual ref­er­ence points rang­ing from Uj­jain to Mecca, Cádiz to Wash­ing­ton. The French held on to Paris time un­til 1911, and Ire­land also went its own way un­til 1916.

Un­til the needs of rail­way timetabling took over, time dif­fered around Ire­land, de­pend­ing on when the sun was at its peak lo­cally. To make the trains run on time, in 1880 Ir­ish stan­dard time was adopted. How­ever, be­cause the sun was at its zenith later in Dublin than in Green­wich, Ir­ish time was stan­dard­ised at 25 min­utes and 21 sec­onds af­ter Bri­tish time. This re­mained the sit­u­a­tion till the Ris­ing in 1916 trig­gered a de­ci­sion to move Ire­land to GMT, and af­ter in­de­pen­dence in 1922, we did not re­vert.

Sum­mer time

The prac­tice of shift­ing time by an hour in the sum­mer was first adopted in Ger­many dur­ing the first World War to save elec­tric­ity. In the UK, the Sum­mer Time Act of 1925 brought in sum­mer time and in­de­pen­dent Ire­land fol­lowed suit.

How­ever, in 1968, Day­light Sav­ing Time was adopted all the year round on an ex­per­i­men­tal ba­sis in Bri­tain and Ire­land. This had the ad­van­tage that in the win­ter the time in Ire­land was the same as in Ger­many and France. It also meant that it was bright later in the evening, po­ten­tially mov­ing peak de­mand for elec­tric­ity in the win­ter. Bri­tain de­cided to drop this ex­per­i­ment in 1969, partly be­cause peo­ple were trav­el­ling to work and school in the dark in win­ter. How­ever, there was some de­bate In Ire­land as to whether we should again fol­low the Bri­tish ex­am­ple or re-es­tab­lish Ir­ish time.

In his first Gen­eral Elec­tion in 1969, Gar­ret Fitz Ger­ald ar­gued at a pub­lic meet­ing in Sandy­mount Green that Ire­land should show its in­de­pen­dence by con­tin­u­ing with the time ex­per­i­ment.

Bran­dish­ing Brad­shaw’s 1914 Rail­way Timetable, he quoted from the timetable about the need to ad­just your watch to Ir­ish time when tak­ing the mail-boat to Dún Laoghaire. He ar­gued that if Ire­land could be dif­fer­ent from Bri­tain in 1914, in­de­pen­dent Ire­land could also have its own time.

Whether the Sandy­mount vot­ers found this ar­gu­ment a con­vinc­ing one is un­known, but he was elected. How­ever, in his sub­se­quent po­lit­i­cal ca­reer, the re-es­tab­lish­ment of Ir­ish time did not fea­ture. More re­cently, in 2012, Labour TD Tommy Broughan in­tro­duced the “Brighter Evenings Bill”, once again propos­ing to move Ire­land to con­ti­nen­tal time. With in­ter­con­nec­tion of the Bri­tish and Ir­ish elec­tric­ity sys­tems, he ar­gued that, by chang­ing time, Ir­ish peak de­mand for elec­tric­ity could be moved so that it oc­curred at a dif­fer­ent time from Bri­tain.

Be­cause cater­ing for peak de­mand, gen­er­ally be­tween five and seven on a win­ter evening, is much more ex­pen­sive than cov­er­ing de­mand at other times, spread­ing the peak could make sig­nif­i­cant sav­ings in cost and in green­house gas

The peak in de­mand for elec­tric­ity in Ire­land in the win­ter is slightly af­ter the peak in Bri­tain, but the dif­fer­ence is very small

emis­sions. This is be­cause plant used to cover peak elec­tric­ity de­mand tends to be much more in­ef­fi­cient than plant used to meet de­mand at other times. This pro­posal to shift time to save on the cost of elec­tric­ity built on the ex­pe­ri­ence else­where, such as Aus­tralia and the US.


A study I did with ESRI col­leagues in 2014 looked at how such an ex­per­i­ment in chang­ing time might work in Ire­land. The peak in de­mand for elec­tric­ity in Ire­land in the win­ter is slightly af­ter the peak in Bri­tain, but the dif­fer­ence is very small. The peak of­ten oc­curs within the same half hour in the day on the two is­lands.

As a re­sult, switch­ing to con­ti­nen­tal time in Ire­land, while mov­ing the peak de­mand to slightly be­fore the Bri­tish peak, would not re­sult in sig­nif­i­cant sav­ings. It is only if Ire­land switched to the same win­ter time zone as Greenland that there might be sig­nif­i­cant sav­ings to be reaped – a chilly thought. While brighter evenings in the win­ter might cheer us all up – ex­cept maybe “early ris­ers” – there would be few fi­nan­cial sav­ings.

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