Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Latest from: CleanTechnica

Latest from: CleanTechnica

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KB Home Opens 1st ZeroHouse 2.0 in California

Posted: 27 Dec 2011 09:09 AM PST


net-zero house

KB Home's ZeroHouse 2.0 at Whisler Ridge in Lake Forest, California. (CLICK TO ENLARGE)

An individual with the inspiration and foresight can build a net-zero home (or renovate a house to make its nets greenhouse gas emissions zero). However, for the masses, a ready product is needed to get them to that target. Luckily, such houses are beginning to pop up on the market.

KB Home, a large homebuilding company in the U.S., unveiled one of the first net-zero production homes in the country this month. Not only that, when unveiling the product, it helped to educate local area children about some of the clean home features of its product. The educational event, which included Lake Forest Mayor Peter Herzog, included games and a tour of ZeroHouse 2.0, as it is called.

As part of the event, "a 'storm' of money, representing the over $250 saved monthly by a ZeroHouse 2.0 as designed when compared to a typical resale home, rained down on the children." And one year's worth of the energy savings from this home is being donated to the local school these children  come from, Serrano Intermediate School.

"The offering of the ZeroHouse 2.0 in Lake Forest continues a national rollout of the net-zero energy homes that KB Home started earlier this fall, with Orange County and homebuyers throughout Southern California now being able to choose a KB home that may eliminate their monthly electricity charges entirely," the company notes.

"KB Home recently announced that solar power systems are now a standard feature of homes at 29 of its communities in Southern California, and it builds 100% of its new homes to the U.S. EPA's ENERGY STAR® qualification. All homes at Whisler Ridge include as standard a 1.8 kWp solar power system, which can reduce homeowners' energy bills by as much as 40% compared to a typical new home built to California's Title 24 standards. The ZeroHouse 2.0 uses additional energy-efficient features and an optional 6.75 kWp solar power system."

Image via Business Wire

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6 Months of Free Electricity Offered with Plugless Power Reservation

Posted: 27 Dec 2011 07:34 AM PST


Wireless EV charger from Evatran.

Evatran, which produces Plugless Power, a wireless electric vehicle (EV) charging system, opened its online reservation system last week and announced that it is offering a $150 rebate card for up to 6 months of free electricity to customers who use the system.

“The Preferred Customer Group will allow Evatran to understand its focus areas for product rollout and follows the recent news of the installation partnership with Sears Home Services(TM),” Evatran commented.

“The incentive is open to the first 500 Nissan Leaf or Chevrolet Volt reservations, and joining the Preferred Customer Group by reserving a system requires no upfront financial commitment.”

Plugless Power wireless EV charging

The benefit of the Plugless Power system is obvious — it’s convenient. The EV driver doesn’t really have to do anything.

“The wireless system automatically begins charging based on the vehicle's requirements, which are communicated to the charging station over a wireless interface that mimics the corded SAE J1772 standard.”

All the EV needs is a small vehicle adapter mounted to the undercarriage of the car and “wired directly into the vehicle's existing on-board battery charger.”

Here’s more on the rebate being offered, via the news release:

No financial commitment is required for the reservation of a system, and the incentive will continue until the Preferred Customer Group reaches 500 Nissan Leaf or Chevy Volt owners. The first 500 names on the reservation list will receive a rebate card for $150 – the average electricity cost per mile across the United States ($.03/mile) for an average six-month mileage rate of 5,000 miles. The Preferred Customers will receive their rebate card when they complete the purchase process for their Plugless Power system later in 2012.

Note that Google has been testing wireless EV charging using Plugless Power since March or so.

Source: Plugless Power

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Time of Day Pricing in Texas

Posted: 27 Dec 2011 07:00 AM PST


A CleanTechnica readers recently sent a story on Texas time of day pricing to me, with a few notes.

Quickly, the general news: “TXU Energy has rolled out a new three-tiered rate plan designed for customers who watch their household budgets and are willing to make some changes in when they fire up the dishwasher or do laundry. The power retailer also says its new plan is a sensible option for homes with solar installations or an EV in the driveway.

“Offering lower rates during specific periods – time-of-use rates – mimics the fluctuations in wholesale electricity costs that occur throughout the day. Perry said TXU has structured its new rate plan so over 90% of the hours in a year are nighttime or off-peak hours. And the difference between peak and nighttime rates is substantial: Compare peak rates (from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, May through October) of 21.9 cents per kilowatt hour to the discounted nighttime rates (10 p.m. to 6 a.m. all year) of 6.8 cents per kilowatt hour.”

Here’s a table of the rates from the press release:

time of use electricity rates texasNow, some notes from our insightful reader:

  • $0.068 per kWh nighttime means 2.4 cents per mile for your Nissan Leaf.
  • $0.219 per kWh for part of the day means that your PV system will pay off sooner. It might be worth tilting it west to do a bit better than $0.155 avg.
  • The fact that only 10% of all hours are peak is telling. Tells you why it makes no sense to build stuff like nuclear that has to run 24/365 when tight supply hours are limited. Sure argues for more solar in Texas.

Totally! And as discussed before, Texas has an insane amount of solar energy potential.

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Solar Panels Creating Electricity for Much Longer than 20 Years

Posted: 27 Dec 2011 04:59 AM PST


As indicated in a study Josh wrote on just a couple weeks ago, the lifespan of a solar power system is far longer than the 20 years most analysts use to calculate solar power costs. Last November, Susan featured one that was going strong at 30 years. Similarly, Kyocera, one of the oldest solar panel manufacturers in the world, recently posted on the fact that a number of its early installations continue to generate electricity reliably nearly 30 years after installation.

kyocera solar panels have long lifespan

I would also note that technology has improved, solar panels have become more durable, and if early solar panels produce electricity for far more than 20 (or even 25) years, what to expect of today’s solar panels?!

Here are a few case studies Kyocera highlighted in its recent article on the matter:

  • In 1984, Sweden's first grid-connected photovoltaic system was built in Stockholm. Since its installation, the fa├žade-mounted 2.1kW system has been continuously and reliably providing the residents of an apartment building with environmentally-friendly electricity. The modules' average annual power generation performance is still reliable — with no significant change since the system was installed 27 years ago.
  • Also in 1984, Kyocera established its Sakura Solar Energy Center just outside of Tokyo. At the time, the Center was equipped with a 43kW solar power generating system which to this day continues to generate a stable amount of power for the facility.
  • In 1985, Kyocera made a donation of a 10kW solar power generation system to a small farming village with no electrical infrastructure located at an elevation of 2,600m (8,500ft) in Gansu Province, China. In 1993, the area received electrical infrastructure, and the solar modules were moved to a regional research facility for clean energy, where after more than 25 years, they are still producing consistent levels of electricity.

Image via Kyocera

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Taking a Closer Look at the Economic Benefits of Solar

Posted: 27 Dec 2011 04:39 AM PST

The following is a great post by Tuan Pham of PowerFin Partners on the often discounted economic benefits of solar. I ran across it on Greentech Media, where it was a featured guest post. Several points echo the benefits of solar that utility company CEOs mentioned in a round-table discussion on the matter I posted a couple months ago. Here’s the full piece — make sure to understand it well and keep those key benefits in mind!

Green vs. Green

The solar industry has a public relations problem. Despite broad public support for renewable energy and growing utility interest in purchasing solar-generated power, few seem aware of the economic benefits that solar provides. To some extent, political posturing and vacillating regulatory goals have obfuscated the economic value of solar power. However, we believe that the solar industry has focused too much on the environmentally "green" benefits of solar power and too little on the economic "green" benefits. By educating consumers about solar's role within electricity markets and emphasizing solar economics relative to conventional power — specifically natural gas — the solar industry can attain some pricing power and be a non-trivial part of the energy market.

Baseload vs. Peak

The first step is to understand the role that solar power plays in energy markets and the relationship of solar to natural gas. Why natural gas instead of hydro, nuclear, coal, or wind? The answer lies in the growing disparity between baseload power supply and peak power demand. Along with increasing demand for power in general, the gap between baseload supply and peak power demand is widening. Baseload sources such as coal, nuclear, and hydro generate at the same capacity throughout the day and cannot expand to meet mid-day peak power demand. Instead, natural gas turbines, because they can be dispatched quickly, are relied upon to accommodate the spikes in peak power demand.

Beyond simply serving peak power demand, natural gas increasingly is being recruited to serve baseload demand. While utilities are closing down more and more coal and nuclear plants — the principal sources of baseload power — the number of gas-fired plants is growing at an accelerating pace. This means that an ever-expanding percentage of our energy supply consists of natural gas, which, as we discuss below, is more expensive and volatile than traditional baseload sources.  Therefore, average power prices will increase and become even more subject to the price fluctuations inherent to natural gas.

This is where solar comes in. Because solar generates the most during periods of peak power demand, it can help grid operators alleviate these demand spikes without being completely beholden to volatile gas-fired power. Moreover, unlike gas-fired power, solar's costs are fixed from day one, which can protect utilities and consumers against climbing power prices.

Oil and Gas Prices: The Real Rationale Behind Solar Power

The second step is to understand solar economics relative to oil and gas pricing. There is a common misperception that solar power is always more expensive than conventional power. This is false. For one thing, utilities are purchasing increasing amounts of solar power — a fact that cannot be explained away by regulatory requirements or environmental concerns. The plain reason is the economic benefit of solar power. Just ask consumers in Hawaii or Puerto Rico, where solar power is less expensive than the oil-based power that otherwise is available.

Skeptics may argue that comparing offshore electricity prices to onshore electricity prices is misleading. However, such critiques fail to grasp the complexities of energy markets. For one thing, a disconnect currently exists between the price of oil and natural gas — with oil at $100/barrel, natural gas should be at $16.67/Mcf, not its current level of ~$4/Mcf (on an energy-equivalent basis, 6 Mcf of natural gas = 1 barrel of oil). Who wouldn’t want to buy oil at $24/barrel when it currently costs $100/barrel? It is hard to believe that this gross disparity between oil and gas prices will hold over the long term. Granted, there are transportation constraints impairing the short-term marketability of U.S. natural gas, but, over time, market efficiencies will prevail, leading to convergence between oil and gas prices (see chart below). When that happens, onshore U.S. power prices will increase.

Yet, even in the currently cheap natural gas pricing environment, we are starting to see examples of solar-generated electricity that is less expensive than gas-fired electricity.  For instance, prevailing solar PPA prices in California consistently are below the Market Price Referent, which is predicated on ~$4/Mcf natural gas. We also are starting to see the same pricing dynamics in predominantly gas-fired states like Texas. With all of this in mind, solar is a screaming bargain!

U.S. Natural Gas Markets and Miracle Technology

Today’s prevailing theory, championed most often by oil and gas companies, is that the U.S. suddenly has become endowed with massive natural gas reserves thanks to new shale drilling “technology." Unsurprisingly, natural gas producers want us to believe that we must become more dependent on this "now-plentiful" resource, a resource that miraculously has been unlocked by the brightest technological minds. But this ain't our first rodeo, and we are dubious of supply-side secular changes in the industry. Previous natural gas cycles have ridden on the back of different newfangled plays or "technology breakthroughs" that were supposed to change the way that natural gas is produced. Remember Coal Bed Methane, Shallow Gulf of Mexico, Deepwater Gulf of Mexico, or Canadian Natural Gas, to name a few?

Don’t get us wrong, the oil and gas industry will continue to drive the energy complex; we just doubt that it is that easy to increase supply at consistently low costs over a long time period. Factor in the rapid decline rates of shale wells and the consolidation of domestic natural gas producers, and we see just-in-time inventory management of an inelastic resource by an oligopoly. Stated differently, if the few natural gas producers that remain (or, at least, those that control swing shale volumes) want to increase prices, they will simply stop drilling, causing more than 70 percent of their product to disappear from the market in a year. Therefore, if shale gas currently contributes 20 percent of the total U.S. natural gas supply, we could lose 14 percent of our total natural gas supply in one year. Because the price that everyone pays for natural gas and electricity is set by the last buyer, unless we trim 14 percent of our consumption, even a marginal supply shortfall will cause natural gas and power prices to spike.

Lastly, changes to the regulatory environment have significantly impacted natural gas prices. Natural gas always has been a geographically constrained resource, but before 1999, when markets deregulated, prices were consistently below $2/Mcf. As a result of deregulation, power prices no longer can be determined by utility commissions alone. Instead, since deregulation, natural gas and power prices have increased in amount and volatility. While it will never be perfect, we think that fuel/feedstock switching and liquefied natural gas inevitably will allow for natural gas to trade in closer parity to its substitutes, correcting the short-term disconnect between natural gas and oil. Ultimately, natural gas prices respond to marketing (trading) dynamics, not just supply dynamics, and solar will become more attractive.

The Value of Certainty

While myriad uncertainties surround the future of natural gas pricing, what is certain is the cost of solar power over the next 20 to 25 years, at least. Not only is the price of solar competitive, but long-term power purchase contracts, coupled with the predictability of solar radiation, make it a uniquely stable source of power (see our September 23, 2010 article). We believe that the incredible price stability of solar can benefit consumers greatly. For instance, municipal budgets that are funded by local utilities will be in dire straits when natural gas prices spike. The plain fact is that U.S. power markets have changed dramatically since deregulation, and fixed-priced solar generating assets are the only protection against otherwise volatile gas-fired peak power prices.

Remember that owners of assets, such as natural gas or solar, make more money with higher prices. Likewise, any trader or power marketer makes the most money in volatile markets. These are simple market facts and these parties are acting as any investor should — it’s just not necessarily in the best interest of municipal stability. Therefore, we want to warn consumers that, by the time gas-fired electricity is routinely more expensive than solar power, it will be too late to buy solar at today's low prices — market efficiencies and rational investors will prevail.

In addition, beyond simply providing a hedge against natural gas price volatility, fixed-price solar electricity enables consumers — whether residential, commercial and industrial, or municipal — to plan and budget with increased certainty. Current city budgets, including critical line items such as fire, police, and teacher salaries, are constantly threatened by the specter of rising and volatile electricity prices. We believe that solar power is an elegant way to ensure that those budgets are met.

Lastly, solar-generating systems last longer than 25 years, with minimal maintenance — all solar panels carry an 80-percent-plus output warranty for 25 years. Because of this, current investment in solar-generating assets will benefit consumers for several decades to come. What are the chances that natural gas prices will remain low and disconnected for the next 20 to 25 years? Even if you believe that the chances are remote, it is a big gamble not to hedge at least a portion of your budget with a long-lived asset like solar.

Solar Makes Economic Sense

While we agree that there are environmental and social benefits related to solar, the tangible economic benefits of solar power must not be ignored. For solar to be a non-trivial part of the energy market, the industry must understand conventional energy economics. The fact is that solar can be less expensive than conventional power and solar can provide unmatched long-term price stability. By emphasizing energy economics, the solar industry will gain some pricing power and stand on its own "green" merits.

Historical Natural Gas and Oil Prices

($/Mcf and $/barrel)

natural gas prices oil prices graph


Tuan Pham is President of PowerFin Partners, a manager of institutional funds for solar projects in North America. Its principals have meaningful experience in energy capital markets, legal and regulatory matters, and renewable engineering.

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Top 10 States for Electric Cars

Posted: 27 Dec 2011 04:12 AM PST


electric car charging

SolarChargedDriving.com recently created a list of the top 10 states in the U.S. for electric cars. It’s got a nice, long intro to the topic and a paragraph for each of the top states. Below, I’m just going to share their list and some of the key points they make about each state. Essentially, the whole analysis is based on the electricity mix of each state — how clean it is. For more, check out the full post, linked above.

  1. Idaho! Say what? Yep, Idaho is a cleanest energy leader (at least as far as air pollution and global warming is concerned). “Hydro-power generates a full 84 percent of Idaho's electricity. Add "other renewables" into the mix, and it jumps to 90 percent! Natural gas, a clean-burning source of energy as far as fossil fuel sources go (the environmental impact of drilling for natural gas is another issue), accounts for almost all of the additional 10 percent. Less than one percent of Idaho's electricity is produced by burning coal. Plug in in Idaho, and you can come extremely close to being able to saying you drive an air pollution-free car – even if you don't solar-charge.”
  2. Washington. ”Hydro power is king in Washington, accounting for 75.4 percent of the state's electricity production. Add in "other renewables" and nearly 80 percent of electricity in Washington is produced with essentially no air pollution whatsoever! Just six percent of Washington's electricity comes from Dirty Coal.”
  3. Oregon. ”Oregon, which gets 70 percent of its electricity from hydro power, makes it a Top Three sweep for the Northwest United States. Add other renewables to the equation and 74 percent of the electricity generated in Oregon can be said to be generated air-pollution free. Natural gas accounts for 22 percent of Oregon's electricity. Coal generates just four percent of it.”
  4. Maine. “According to GetEnergyActive.Org, 27 percent of Maine's electricity is generated by non-hydro renewable and other. Yes, some of that total comes from biofuels, including wood. But add in another 25 percent from hydro-power and more than 50 percent of the electricity you're drawing for your plug-in in Maine, is being generated by renewable energy forms. Natural gas accounts for another 43 percent, meaning something approaching 95 percent of the electricity produced in Maine is generated by reasonably clean forms of energy.”
  5. California. “According to GetEnergyActive.Org, hydro produces 22 percent of California's electricity and non-hydro renewable + ‘other’ account for another 12 percent. That means that about one-third of the state's electricity is generated by renewable energy forms. Natural gas accounts for the bulk of California's electricity at 49 percent. Coal provides just one percent of California's electricity.”
  6. South Dakota. ”This is a shocker for us: South Dakota generates 50 percent of its electricity from renewable energy forms (48 percent = hydro, two percent = non-hydro renewable and other). However, pretty much all of the rest of its electricity comes from the burning of coal (47 percent)…. Additionally, South Dakota isn't exactly friendly to residential renewable energy investment, especially solar. In fact, it is currently one of the worst states to go solar in due to little to no state and state-mandated utility incentives (such as rebates) for homeowners.”
  7. Montana. “With 37 percent of its electricity generated by hydro-power, Montana, like South Dakota, would actually appear to outperform California (34 percent) on the renewable energy front. However, we rank it sixth because Montana produces very little of its electricity via 'non-hydro renewable and other' (just .3 percent). Additionally, the burning of coal accounts for 61 percent of Montana's electricity generation, far more than California's tiny one percent from coal.”
  8. Minnesota. ”Minnesota makes it into the No. 8 position in our Best States to Plug In a Plug-In rankings due to the comparativelyhigh amount of electricity it generates by non-hydro renewable and other forms, seven percent. Another one percent produced by hydro pushes the total of electricity generated by renewable energy forms to eight percent. Of course, 60 percent of Minnesota's electricity is generated by the burning of coal. So, before you plug in your plug in (or within a couple years of buying one) if you can, put up solar panels and/or a residential wind turbine to help offset the state's comparatively heavy reliance on coal.”
  9. New Hampshire. ”In New Hampshire, 13 percent of electricity is produced by renewable energy forms (this includes hydro), and just 17 percent by the burning of coal.However, nuclear energy generates 42 percent of New Hampshire's electricity. If you're pro-nuke, by all means plug in your plug-in and don't change a thing. If you're not (and we're not), then consider putting up solar panels on your home or planting a home wind turbine in your yard (if you have a home or yard) to help offset New Hampshire's nukes and/or the 17 percent of its electricity that comes from the burning of coal.”
  10. New York. ”If energy diversity is your gig, New York is the place to live – and plug in. Nuclear energy accounts for the most electricity production in The Empire State at 30 percent. Natural gas (29 percent) is close behind. Hydro power is next at 18 percent with non-hydro renewable and other accounting for an additional three percent of electricity produced. Coal (15 percent) and oil (5 percent) round out the diverse mix for New York.”

Not the most fine-tuned analysis, but it tackles the biggest issue — electricity mix — for those who are driving an electric car to help the air and climate.

Of course, an individual can take one simple step more and power their electric car with solar panels to make it irrelevant what state the live in and trump all other options.

Electric car via shutterstock

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£250 Million for Nuclear Failure in UK

Posted: 27 Dec 2011 03:40 AM PST


nuclear power uk

Nuclear power is expensive, and the costs always seem to go up. And not just because of environmental catastrophes. The latest nuclear news out of the UK backs this statement up yet again.

“The taxpayer will have to stump up almost £250m more to bail out the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority in the next financial year after falling asset sales and rising expenditure cut its income by 17.5%,” The Guardian notes.

“The shortfall is revealed in the NDA’s just-published draft business plan for 2012-15, which shows the impact of being unable to offload land to the private sector for new nuclear plants and the end of the contracts to supply Japan with mixed-oxide fuel.”

Terry Macalister of The Guardian and Doug Parr, Greenpeace’s chief scientific officer, are apt to point out the same thing I mention above:

“The setback will give more ammunition to environmentalists and other critics who argue that the wider nuclear industry is infamous for cost overruns and calls on public funds,” Macalister said.

“For all the claims of the government that it will be the power giants like EDF that will foot the cost of the next generation of nuclear, the reality yet again is that the hard-pressed taxpayer will end up footing the bill,” noted Parr.

UK nuclear power plant cooling towers via avail

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Patrick Dempsey Talks Solar Power

Posted: 27 Dec 2011 02:37 AM PST

Trina Solar Limited has teamed up with McDreamy himself, Patrick Dempsey, in an eight minute video that discusses solar power and its usefulness in communities.

The video, entitled ‘Plug me in, Light me up’ reminds us that, every 15 minutes, enough sunlight hits the Earth to fulfill our energy needs for a year.

“Using sustainable energy to improve people’s everyday lives is at the heart of our mission, and we are proud to work with Patrick Dempsey to draw attention to the difference that solar energy can make in this world,” Trina Solar said on its website.

Trina Solar Limited is “a leading integrated manufacturer of solar photovoltaic products” and in its video it “introduces viewers to Trina Solar’s philanthropic efforts in bringing energy independence to a Mexican home for orphaned children, an African hospital, and an American camp for children with special medical needs.”

It’s actually really great to see such a well done video with an actual message being espoused by a celebrity. The video’s message is based in facts, rather than just hopeful activism.

Source: Trina Solar

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New Solar Energy Monitoring Application for Android-Powered Smart Phones

Posted: 26 Dec 2011 01:06 PM PST


The options offered by smart phone technology and apps are virtually limitless. We’ve featured a number of green apps here on CleanTechnica, but I can’t remember hearing or reading about one for monitoring solar panel performance.. until now. SunPower has just unveiled one for its customers.

sunpower app sunpower android app sunpower solar panel android app

Last week, SunPower, a world-leading producer of solar cell, solar panels, and solar systems (& California’s most popular solar panel last I checked), announced “a new solar energy monitoring application for Android™-powered smartphones to its SunPower Monitoring System portfolio.”

Basically, customers can track both their home energy use and environmental savings and the performance of their solar power system with the app. They can look at such data in real-time or historically. They can also share that info with friends and family.

The app is free and can be downloaded from Android Market. Check it out if you have a SunPower system and drop us any comments you have about it!

I imagine there are other apps like this out there (but maybe not) — drop a note in the comments if you know of and recommend any.

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China Testing 500 km/h High-Speed Train

Posted: 26 Dec 2011 11:38 AM PST

china high-speed train 500 kmh

It’s no secret that China is light years ahead of the U.S. on the development and use of high-speed trains. The latest news out of China is that it launched a super-fast high-speed rail (HSR) test train over the weekend. State-run media announced today that the train can travel up to 500 kilometers per hour (~310.7 miles per hour).

The train, designed to look like an ancient Chinese sword, was made by a subsidiary of CSR Corp Ltd, China’s largest train maker.

The train “has a maximum tractive power of 22,800 kilowatts, compared with 9,600 kilowatts for the CRH380 trains currentlyin service on the Beijing-Shanghai High-Speed Railway, which hold the world speed record of300 km per hour,” China Daily notes.

h/t Reuters | Image Credit: China Daily

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