Crowd sourced analysis of a Lovins sales pitch
I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing an Amory Lovins talk in person three times. Each time, I left the venue with the feeling that an agnostic must have had after attending an Elmer Gantry revival. The audience for two of the events should have been more skeptical — those talks were part of a series of Energy Conversations held in Crystal City, Virginia just south of the Pentagon. Even though a substantial portion of the audience had nominally technical, defense industry-oriented backgrounds, they were still enthusiastic receptors for Lovins’s seductive message that we could have all the energy we need with little effort, no new government rules, no cost, and no pollution.
To be fair, Lovins makes it abundantly clear to anyone who listens carefully that his energy system will supply substantially less power than our current one because he believes we need far less energy per person that we use today. My concern is that he makes it sound incredibly easy to reduce consumption without reducing the benefits we receive by freely using energy.
There were a few other skeptics in attendance on the occasions when I heard a Lovins talk — I spoke to some after the events — but in each case, I was one of the few who picked one of his many statements and challenged his assertion as being in conflict with another phrase somewhere else in the talk.
For example, the above video presentation includes a slide detailing the contributions of various energy sources in the system that Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute envision for 2050. (You might have missed it; it was visible for just 3 seconds before he moved to the next slide.)
Look hard at those circles, read the fuel source, note the percentages and then listen again to Lovins during his wrap-up (32:00), which includes the following sweet-sounding phrase.
And, but for a little biofuel grown in ways that sustain and endure, this new fire is flameless.
A major portion of the “new fire” power sources that humans are developing are flameless, but a real energy system prescription includes actinide fission, a power source that Lovins abhors and believes needs to be eliminated.
As shown in his own graphic, Lovins envisions a world where humans have less raw power, but where at least 49% of it still requires old-fashioned flames from burning biomass and natural gas. He counts hydrogen as an energy source, even though it is just a carrier, and he projects contributions from “other renewables,” a term that currently includes such wonders of modern technology as burning municipal solid waste, landfill gas, sludge waste, and agricultural byproducts.
As indicated in the title to this blog post, I’d like to offer a crowd-source opportunity to pick apart Lovins’s smoothly-delivered energy system mirage. Point out the realities that conflict with his pretty pictures. Help me find data indicating how his renovation of the Empire State Building has performed during the past couple of years. Put price tags and production plans onto the concept cars that he gushes about.
Some of you might believe that I have already focused too much on Amory Lovins. Some readers have told me that they believe he has marginalized himself and is not a major factor anymore. I believe it is dangerous to underestimate his reach and his influence on the thinking that is shaping our national energy actions. We need to encourage people to dissect his plans, understand the fallacious arguments, and recognize the hazard of following his soft energy path towards an even greater reliance on high cost fossil fuel and unreliable natural energy flows.
Not only will we be less secure and have less individual access to power, but we will also be putting more C02 than necessary into the environment, we will still be enriching some rather nasty people, and we will be disfiguring a vast quantity of scenic vistas with massive industrial installations of wind turbines and solar energy collectors.
Aside: The carbon fiber bowl that Lovins uses as a prop was at least 6 years old when he gave the above talk in 2012; he had it with him in 2006 when I saw him in Crystal City. His initial laugh line — “After that introduction, I can’t wait to hear what I have to say” — was almost exactly the same one he used on March 28, 2014 at Princeton. End Aside.
Update: (posted 9/7/2014 at 12:12)
I found another discussion that included a supplementary perspective on Amory Lovins. This one provides one more look at the seductive nature of his message; I can agree with many of the things that he says he supports. I just don’t buy his math, his faith in efficiency, his stated belief in the continued cost reductions associated with unreliables and his dismissal of nuclear energy.
His suggestion for ways to eliminate energy subsidies is quite intriguing, however. It would be nice to see solar and wind power executives reacting to an offer to eliminate the production tax credit, the investment tax credit in lieu of the PTC, accelerated depreciation, Renewable Portfolio Standards, and the loan guarantee programs where the Credit Subsidy Cost is paid by an appropriation vice charging the loan applicant.
Rod, I believe that the time has come to put Lovins on the back burner. Many of your readers are new, and have not seen your excellent past posts on Lovins. Feed them that, rather than creat new posts. Your time would be better spent talking about how nuclear power will be the future energy silver bullet.
Thank you for the advice, but it takes me little or no time to create new material showing that Lovins continues to employ the same confidence man techniques today that he has employed for the past 40 years. When I create a short new post, it gives me the opportunity to link back to previous work and to link to others who have produced valuable insights into “Lovins’s math” and rhetorical techniques.
I’m not sure how any effort would be saved by reposting previously published articles and I don’t see how that would free up any room on Atomic Insights to focus on new material.
If you want to offer critics of an anti-nuk, you might look at Benjimin V Sovacool, who will probanly serve as an easy target. Unlike Lovings, Sovacool has academic cradentials, but there are huge flaws in his work. If I coul;d see well enough to do the research, I would go after Sovacool again.
You might have missed the posts on Sovacool that have been published here. https://atomicinsights.com/?s=sovacool
Continuing to pursue additional ammunition against Lovins has not stopped us from discussing others like Mark Cooper, Benjamin Sovacool, Arnie Gundersen, Joe Romm, Paul Gunter, Ralph Nader, Michael Mariotte or others.
What I would like to see is a good run-down of the funding these folks get. Something be a certified forensic accountant or the like.
KitemanSA: I’m sure we’d all love that, but you can’t just always go around demanding people’s financial records. You MIGHT have access to them if they are getting funding through a 501(c)3 IRS certified non-profit, but rich people in the oil and coal industries are pretty good at hiding any contributions they make to organizations and individual “researchers” like Lovins.
So, the point of all this is, many times, the money trail you’d like to see is not and never will be part of the public record, and so we’ll never know.
Lovins cites (unspecified) sources indicating that an all-renewable grid can be “cost-effective”. It is likely that the unspecified source is Budischak et. al. 2013 “Cost-minimized combinations of wind power, solar power and electrochemical storage, powering the grid up to 99.9% of the time.” Journal of Power Sources, 225, 60-74.
Reading the abstract (only) of this paper seems to give that impression, but when digging into the details one finds that the 99.9% renewable grid envisioned would actually increase the cost of electricity by nearly a factor of three, as wind is vastly overbuilt (and thus suffers from equally massive curtailment and its associated lowering of capacity factor).
The authors get away with claiming this grid is comparable in cost to the existing grid by counting external costs of carbon (including climate costs) in the cost of the existing system. And the authors deliberately excluded nuclear from their analysis.
Since new nuclear is already about the same price as wind, it’s clear that an all nuclear grid would provide electricity at about 1/3 the cost of the all-wind grid that Budischak et. al. envision.
I should point out, however, that this is not the grid Lovins actually envisions. His Option 4 (distributed solar) grid uses relatively little wind, relying instead on solar and biomass, two of the most expensive energy options out there.
Lovins also obfuscates by claiming that electricity bills will be lower even if electricity prices increase because his entering argument is that we can reduce our electricity use by a factor of three through the use of the best-of-a-kind efficiency programs. Our reduced unit consumption would — in his opinion — more than pay for any increased unit prices.
One big thing Lovins misses entirely: non-fossil industrial process heat.
Lovins is essentially a televangelist. It would be pointless to try to convince any televangelist flock that their speaker is full of crap. They are not looking for the truth. They are looking for reinforcement of a belief system.
Oh good. We can all just give up and go home. It’s a lost cause. Nothing will ever change. We can’t convince anyone who currently thinks solar, wind, efficiency, and biofuels are the solution, because nobody ever changes their mind.
Thanks for saving us all a lot of time and effort.
The best way I know of to show the inadequacy of non-hydro renewables is to compare the real world experience of Germany and France. Perhaps no other nation has undertaken such an ambitious renewable energy build up as Germany has. At the end of 2013, Germany had over 34 GW of wind power capacity and 36 GW of solar capacity, for a combined wind + solar capacity of 70 GW. In 2013, those renewables produced 85,132 GWh of electrical generation.
France, on the other hand, has 63 GW of nuclear capacity, and in 2013 those nuclear plants produced 403,264 GWh. France’s nuclear plants have less capacity, but produced almost 5 times as much energy.
Even Germany’s remaining nuclear fleet of 12 GW capacity produced more electricity than Germany’s non-hydro renewables last year.
Germany’s Carbon Intensity Per Kilowatt-hour (CIPK) was 477 grams of CO2 per kwh in 2011. This is about the same as the United States’ CIPK.
France’s CIPK is 61 grams/kwh.
Other countries’ CIPKs can be seen beginning on page 112 of the following pdf:
There are some countries with low CIPKs that have large hydroelectric capacities (Norway, for example). But there are no low-CIPK countries that get their performance primarily from wind and/or solar.
This is real world performance, not some hypothetical renewable energy world that Amory Lovins lives in. For all of Germany’s solar and wind farms, they also burn a lot of lignite in order to keep the lights on during calm winter nights. Lovins talks about biofuels. Do the calculations on how much land needs to be dedicated to growing trees (or whatever) to see that power generation from biofuels on a large, country-wide scale is impractical.
Here is another comparison. The average citizen of Berlin pays 28.49 euro-cents per kilowatt-hour for their electricity. The average citizen of Paris pays 13.7 cents/kwh.
Lovins’ arguments need to be addressed using this sort of actual experience based on real world data. Fighting him on his own theoretical terms would be an exercise in frustration.
Here are some links to back up my previous post.
Generation data for Germany and France:
Electricity prices in Europe:
Germany will fail to meet its 2020 carbon reduction targets:
Combustion of lignite is the highest since German reunification:
Here’s a common sense question:
If France has such a better deal than Germany, then why aren’t the Germans dismantling their policies and emulating the French? Does Germany have a cadre of Amory Lovins type folks feeding them the snake oil?
The Germans are surely in a better position to compare their position with the French than someone in North America. They border one another.
Germany appears to have the continent’s worst cases of two maladies: Green romanticism and anti-nuclear paranoia. Innumeracy seems to be pervasive as well, otherwise the scheme would have been laughed out of parliament at the outset.
I think it is more that politicians believe that they can always deflect blame about poor energy policy choices away to others. Politicians do not think that the voter understands energy matters enough to be able to decide which politicians know what they are talking about and which do not. Hence, speaking nice-sounding nonsense about energy and sustianability has become the norm in politics.
However, there are signs that this is coming to an end, at least in my country which neighbours Germany. In less than a month, an official report will be published concerning the progress of our national energy policy (which is of poor quality). Insiders have already said that this report contains damning evidence of failure of the energy policy. Hopefully, this will give my country a new chance to formulate a correct energy policy, instead of one which is mostly nonsense and waste.
‘Does Germany have a cadre of Amory Lovins type folks feeding them the snake oil?’
You answered your own question.
Umm… That would depend upon just which Germans, and which Nord Americano, would it not? Fact is, we’re all in this boat together. German Greens hold up Energiewende as a shining story of success. American Greens take their word for it and are (thus far) successfully pushing the United States to emulate them. And completely ignore the energy requirements of China, India, and the rest of the developing world in the process.
Energiewende may be wildly popular among Germans, but not universally so. It behooves one to listen to the naysayers as well:
Gone With the Wind: Weak Returns Cripple German Renewables.
War on Subsidies: Brussels Questions German Energy Revolution.
Germany’s Energy Poverty: How Electricity Became a Luxury Good.
Reality Check: Germany’s Defective Green Energy Game Plan.
Eco-Blowback: Mutiny in the Land of Wind Turbines.
Thank you for your links, Pete — I shall peruse and bookmark them later tonight. One nit: it might not be useful to compare German and French residential retail electric prices. Wholesale prices might be more meaningful. Its a subject I’m not really clear on myself. Something to do with not wishing German heavy industry to depart for Turkey or the States, but there’s possibly even more to it than that. In any event, Energiewerke is apparently wildly popular, and the wild populace appears willing to pay the freight.
Here is a link that provides some information on the electricity prices paid by industry in Europe. Industry prices should be closer to the wholesale power price.
France still shows a significantly lower price than Germany (0.085 vs 0.144 per kwh).
I do think it is useful to look at retail prices, as they will tend to include the cost of subsidies paid to the renewables. Someone needs to pay for the extra costs associated with the feed in tariffs and whatnot. That someone is usually the residential retail customer, or alternatively, the tax payer (who are essentially the same people).
Europe has run into the same problem as sometimes occurs in the US. Wind power producers receive so much in subsidies, they can actually bid negative prices into the wholesale market and still make money. This distortion causes the wholesale price to be artificially low, but those savings never seem to show up in the retail price. Negative wholesale prices might help to cause some Exelon nuclear plants to shut down in Illinois. They just can’t compete against the wind production tax credits and investment tax credits.
Exelon makes this case in http://graphics8.nytimes.com/news/business/exelon.pdf. The future of three Exelon Plants in Question “after they failed to secure a capacity payment would have that supported their operation in a difficult power market.”
To be fair, in the interest of balanced reporting, there is indeed a case for allowing negative electricity prices, although in further interest of fairness and balanced reporting, one might further note that particular article makes no mention of ghg emissions, only that coal and nuclear are “inflexible”. Which in the face of a stiff-but-intermittent wind they may well be:
Seriously. You can’t make this stuff up…
“Energiewerke is apparently wildly popular, and the wild populace appears willing to pay the freight.”
Except with the hundreds of thousands of people who can no longer pay their energy bills. But no worries. They have no means of complaining about their lot, because they have no access to energy….
From your figures, capacity utilization is 13.9%.
From your figures, capacity utilization is 13.9%
That is correct. Breaking it down between wind and solar, and using an average capacity for 2013 as the average between the capacities at the end of 2012 and the end of 2013, the following utilization rates are found:
For a northern European nation like Germany to have invested so heavily into solar, I have to question how such a system ended up existing? Even the wind power utilization rate is somewhat worse than you might find in US plains states, where 30 to 35% is more common.
But… but… but… but how are you going to know it won’t work unless you try it and see? After all, economics is an experimental science, right? Right??
[Runs and hides]
If I want to beat renewables advocates over the head with statistics, I just Google ‘IPCC CO2/kwh’, which brings up this table
Most of the guilty and innocent feature top right. Germany and France are adjacent.
Well I guess some valuable insight did come form actually listening to his pitch, Rod. There are a few issues beyond it simply not technologically working in reality. I dont think I could have stomached it. Its such a puritanical and self depreciating turn off from the get go.
Also sightly off topic but I am worried about a anti nuke spending blitz in the midterms. If the dems are involved in the anti nuke stuff this time ive pretty much more than had it with them.
Environmentalists’ campaign spending on midterms to see huge jump this year
“We are poised to make, by far, the biggest investment we’ve ever made in elections,” Karpinski said in an interview, adding that the group’s efforts are “making climate change part of the conversation” in races across the country.
( http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/environmentalists-campaign-spending-on-midterms-to-see-huge-jump-this-year/2014/09/05/f579b39c-346c-11e4-8f02-03c644b2d7d0_story.html )
The problem is ALL of these players that I have looked at seem to have taken substantial anti nuclear positions in the past. And thats simply NOT good climate change policy.
From your link:
“Anti-fossil fuel groups, no matter how much money they spend, face an uphill battle at the ballot box because they simply cannot explain to the public how they plan to meet energy needs without fossil fuels, both now and in the future,” Dempsey wrote in an e-mail.
This could be an opportunity to sell the advantages of nuclear power. They have no other viable option.
Yes but this bunch are fanatics in the church of renewables it seems. In Florida Tom Steyer is funding anti Scott ads that seem to put nuclear in a negative light. The Scott people are in turn blaming approval for a NPP that didnt go on Christ.
( http://miamiherald.typepad.com/nakedpolitics/2014/08/tom-steyers-nextgen-group-targets-rick-scott-for-hiding-duke-energy-ties.html ).
As much as I absolutely cant stand Scott this already almost has me holding my nose.
Cutting to the chase, Dan Lashof of the NRDC seems to be the behind the scenes common denominator writing the special interest/PAC as well as modifying the Dem party/Obama play book on energy strategies now.
I’m not going to watch a half-hour video of Lovins, no matter how worthwhile the cause. He makes my skin crawl.
One of my favorite podcasts — the No Agenda Show — uses a line to the effect of “we watch C-span so you don’t have to.” I guess I can adapt a similar slogan – “I watch Lovins so you won’t have to.”
Back at my alma mater we had several names for people like Amory, but I won’t bore the audience or subject myself to the possible wrath of…
Had to laugh, at Rod’s answer as well.
I mentioned earlier about the amount of land needed to grow biofuels. In Lovins’ slideshow, which you show above, a slide says 23% of future energy needs will come from “non-cropland biofuels”. I assume Lovins is talking about total primary energy needs, since in that part of the talk, he is discussing both electricity (coal) and transportation (oil) energy needs.
The BP Statistical Review of World Energy says that in 2013, the United States consumed 2265.8 million tonnes of oil equivalent in Primary Energy. A tonne of oil equivalent is equal to 39.68 million BTUs. The Engineering Toolbox says most pines and spruces have heating values of around 17 million BTU per cord of dry wood. (Assuming we are going to use wood as our biofuel. I don’t remember Lovins saying what form of biomatter he wants to use.)
A rule of thumb says it takes an acre of land to sustainably produce one cord of wood per year, in most US woodlands.
So, using the current energy consumption rate, multiplying by 0.23, converting to BTUs, and dividing by the BTU heat content per cord of wood, we find it will take about 1.2 billion cords of wood grown per year to supply 23% of US primary energy. It will take 1.2 billion acres to grow that much wood on a sustainable basis. This is 1.9 million square miles.
1.9 million square miles is larger than Alaska, Texas and Montana combined. And we are still short several hundred thousand square miles.
I suppose with Lovins’ magical energy saving technologies, he plans to cut primary energy usage down significantly. But even if energy use can be cut in half, it will still take more land than Alaska and Texas combined to grow the wood.
I invite anyone to check these numbers. The area of land needed surprised me as being so big.
“A rule of thumb says it takes an acre of land to sustainably produce one cord of wood per year, in most US woodlands”
Whose “rule of thumb” is that??? Seems to me it would depend on climate, tree species, and geology. I can cut a cord of pine in a pine forest a hell of a sight faster, covering far less ground, than I can cut a cord of oak in an oak grove. And the cord of pine doesn’t even come close to putting out the heat that the cord of oak will.
Seems to me that “rule of thumb” is pretty generally….well…..overly simplistic, and not very reliable.
Good point. Some wood you may not wish to burn at all, like Popple (Aspen).
Whose “rule of thumb” is that???
See post below from me at 9.56 pm. It comes from the university extension of Iowa State University. They specifically reference Iowa, but don’t say if it is hardwood, wood from evergreens, or what. You can use whatever number you like, including the heat content from various varieties of trees. I provided references. You provided your opinion.
So it is your contention that a false premise, providing the basis for your argument, is valid because it came from a university?
Have you ever seen a nurtured almond grove, grown by a large agricultural corporate entity, where trees are groomed and shaped for optimum land usage? Or observed the remarkable growth rates of these genetically engineered trees?
Your estimate of required land mass, based on a ridiculously simplistic “rule of thumb”, is little more than useless conjecture.
Besides the fact that the trees used for biomass, at least in my area, are not the product of natural woodlands. They are groves of trees retired from commercial farming operations, where the land is immediately replanted for further productivity.
I am not advocating for biomass energy production. I don’t know enough about it. But one thing I do know….. that is that your calculations about land requirements, based on that absurd “rule of thumb”, is inane prattle.
Please take a few deep breaths and stop sounding so angry.
You and Pete are not necessarily talking about the same thing. Burning the wood remains from a replaced grove is not the same as growing wood sustainably as a crop for harvest. Neither is breeding or engineering trees for maximum fruit or nut production.
This reference might provide some more generally useful numbers
I examined your link. It applies specifically to Joe Homeowner heating his castle with the fruit of his weekend attempts to play Paul Bunyon. To apply that information as an argument against the generation of power using biomass as fuel is a laughable argument.
And….uh….BTW….where does it say “most U.S. woodlands”? Are you reading a different language than me? Do I need an interpreter? Is there small print? Help me out here.
And….uh….BTW….where does it say “most U.S. woodlands”?
I was going from memory on a link I had read months ago. After going back (I knew where to find it), I realized it referred specifically to Iowa.
I would like you to give me the proper answer. How large of an area would it take to supply 23% of the US primary energy supply with biofuels? An area the size of an average Walmart parking lot? I suggest you scroll down and watch the David Mackay video I linked to at 10:21 pm. It might take two Walmart parking lots.
“I would like you to give me the proper answer. How large of an area would it take to supply 23% of the US primary energy supply with biofuels?”
Why would I offer the same kind of speculative prattle that I just took you to task for? Such an estimate of land mass would have to be based on a huge number of unknown factors. What is the nature of the fuel? How fast does it regenerate? Is it natural, or cultivated? What is its potential heat factor?
Offering specious agenda driven “data” is exactly what you folks criticize those such as Lovins for. It escapes understanding why you would resort to the same kind of presentations.
Rules of thumb have their place.
In this case, they give an order-of-magnitude sanity check about whether we’re talking about half an acre, half a square mile, half a county, half a state, or half a nation.
“Rules of thumb have their place”
Yep. And in this particular case, that rule of thumb’s “place” is in the living room of an Iowan, seeking a bit of warmth from his fireplace.
That’s exactly the kind of analysis I am looking for. Thank you. When I heard his talk in March, I asked him exactly what fuel he intended his “cogeneration” plants to burn and one of his answers was “non cropland biofuels.” I did not have any numbers at my fingertips at that time; now I do.
I suppose with Lovins’ magical energy saving technologies, he plans to cut primary energy usage down significantly. But even if energy use can be cut in half, it will still take more land than Alaska and Texas combined to grow the wood.
One of the quickly delivered lines I heard in a Lovins talk indicated that he expected his energy efficiency actions to reduce primary energy demand to 1/3 of what it would be without those actions.
So he’s planning to make Texas and large swaths of the south uninhabitable….
Sure, my grandparents and great grandparents lived here before air conditioning, but they farmed. They didn’t try to perform complex operations in 60 consecutive days of 100+ heat.
I don’t see how air conditioning could be reduced to 1/3 the energy usage it currently has.
And they have never done so in even a single city, anywhere, ever.
Large tree plantations are not always conducive to woldlife. You do not have a diversity of species. I wonder how Lovins would do with his ideas when he comes across the Spotted Owl crew.
I noted Popple earlier. I used to heat my house with wood. Some woods like popple rot quickly. They are difficult to dry. They don’t season well. They burn and the heat is used to dry the moisture from the wood. All wood is not the same.
Species such as poplar would probably need to be torrefied for storage. Removing most of the -OH groups from the wood appears to radically reduce its tendency to absorb water.
There are places that have reduced there energy use to a third or less of what it was. Those places were largely or completely abandoned in the end. Sometimes it was caused by economic collapse, other times disasters, wars, etc. My guess is if you try to reduce energy use to a third or less of previous amounts by force of government or marketplace, it will precipitate an economic collapse. This is especially true if price is used as the arbiter of energy availability (which the pro-unreliables crowd seems to have no problem with).
Some links referenced in the post above:
BP Statistical Review of World Energy (page 40):
Heat content of wood per cord:
The rule of thumb:
“Most woodlands in Iowa are capable of producing or growing up to a cord of wood per acre per year with good management.”
Tonne of Oil Equivalent:
David Mackay did his own calculations on the amount of land needed for biofuels and other renewable energy sources. He summarizes his findings in a TED talk, linked below:
If you watched the Lovins talk, you need to view this video (18.5 minutes long) for a “reality check”.
Of course, it is implied that we’ll willingly reduce energy consumption, despite evidence to the contrary.
But then again, people in his position are willing to impress their will on the rest of us through legislation. Once his vision becomes law, the enforcers will stop by to make sure we’re “in compliance.” Let’s hope they just confiscate and destroy our old gas guzzlers. They’re capable of doing far worse…
Green romanticism in Germany goes back to at least the early 19th century. It is a strong part of the Romantic movement in general.
Americans like to think they are pioneers on the prairies, and Germans like to think they are woodcutters living in the deep forest.
What they don’t understand that in actuality there was nothing “romantic” about that kind of living. In general, it was a life of hardship, deprivation, poverty, hard labor from dawn to dusk, disease, kids who more often than not died in childhood, and adults who worked themselves into an early grave. Why anyone would think that was “romantic” is beyond me. I’m guessing 90-95% of the population in either Germany or the US would die within a few months if they had to live such a lifestyle.
People are more resilient than you assume. There would be many unhappy people, but they wouldn’t perish so quickly. There was a “romantic” even idyllic condition for a tiny minority that could afford to consume the labor of dozens to hundreds of their fellow humans.
Wikipedia has an article on photothenthetic efficiency, however you have to take into consideration the energy that is used to plant and harvest the crop etc.
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