Debate Flares Over Electric Grid Fuel Supplies

Graph showing PJM Cleared ICAP by Delivery Year
Data source: PJM Interconnection

In a thinly-veiled swipe at renewable energy resources, Energy Secretary Rick Perry is reportedly ordering a study to determine whether the proliferation of renewables is threatening grid reliability by causing baseload (i.e., coal) resources to retire prematurely. The target of the report is not renewables, per se, but rather the compensation scheme for wholesale power in restructured markets around the country, and whether these markets are over or under-compensating various resources and therefore resulting in a sub-optimal fuel mix.

The subjects of generator compensation and fuel diversity are hotly contested in the energy world, as new (and renewable) resources such as wind, solar, and storage seek to compete with traditional resources such as gas, coal, and even nuclear. These new resources, which are favored by regulators in many states (including Perry’s home state of Texas), to date have generally complemented the existing resource mix and grid operators have been able to balance increasing quantities of intermittent resources; while industry insiders have debated the merits and value of various resource types, for the most part these arguments have taken place outside of the spotlight.

Now, though, with the new administration’s efforts to support coal power, along with nuclear operators loudly arguing their plants are being under-compensated and threatening shutdowns in New York, Illinois, and Ohio, and also as wind and solar generation reach ever higher levels of penetration and threaten to upend the historical pricing and production models in states such as California and Hawaii, the fight for the future of the grid is bursting into the headlines.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission next month will be holding a technical conference, during which Commission staff seeks to discuss long-term expectations regarding the relative roles of wholesale markets and state policies in the Eastern RTOs/ISOs in shaping the quantity and composition of resources needed to cost-effectively meet future reliability and operational needs.

Testimony for the technical conference will be forthcoming, but in the meantime the nation’s largest electrical grid, PJM Interconnection, has issued a report concluding that today’s resource profile “is both reliable and diverse,” and that not only does a more diverse grid not threaten reliability, “[t]he expected near-term resource portfolio is among the highest-performing portfolios and is well equipped to provide the generator reliability attributes.”

As the resource mix moves in the direction of less coal and nuclear generation, according to PJM, generator reliability attributes of frequency response, reactive capability, and fuel assurance decrease, but flexibility and ramping attributes increase. With regard to solar capacity, PJM concludes that this resource cannot feasibly exceed 20 percent of the mix due to unavailability at night. That said, assuming other nighttime resources, PJM “could maintain reliability with unprecedented levels of wind and solar.”

As for the grid’s reliance on individual fuels, PJM advises that heavy reliance on any one fuel type may negatively impact resilience. For example, gas plants can generally be relied upon to serve up to 86 percent of demand, but risks include interruptions in fuel deliverability in extreme conditions such as a polar vortex; for coal plants, operational risks include coal piles freezing or an inability to replenish coal supplies in extreme conditions.

The resource mix within PJM has become more evenly balanced in recent years. In 2005, coal and nuclear resources generated 91 percent of the electricity on the PJM system. Over time, policy initiatives, technology improvements, and economics spurred a shift from coal to natural gas and renewable generation. From 2010 to 2016 in PJM, coal-fired units made up 79 percent of the megawatts retired, and natural gas and renewables made up 87 percent of new megawatts placed in service. PJM’s installed capacity in 2016 consisted of 33 percent coal, 33 percent natural gas, 18 percent nuclear, and 6 percent renewables (including hydro).

Without identifying the optimal resource mix, PJM concludes that “there are resource blends between the most diverse and the least diverse portfolios which provide the most generator reliability attributes.”

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California Energy Regulator to Federal Climate Experts: “You’re Hired!”

Photo of CPUC President Michael Picker in front of United States EPA.
CPUC President Michael Picker inviting federal energy and climate employees to work in California.

In response to the White House budget that would decimate the ranks of federal employees working to mitigate climate change, the president of the California Public Utilities Commission, Michael Picker, this week greeted workers arriving at the headquarters of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy announcing that California welcomes their talents.

“On climate action, there’s a dark cloud hanging over Washington right now,” said CPUC President Picker. “If climate scientists and experts want the opportunity to continue doing important work for the good of our planet, my message is simple: Come West, California is hiring.”

The CPUC, the California Air Resources Board, and the California Energy Commission are currently hiring dozens of new staff for positions working on climate change, renewable energy, air quality, and clean energy research and development – among many other opportunities.

The budget released this week by the White House proposes to eliminate 50 programs and $2.6 billion from the EPA’s budget, a 31 percent reduction. The cuts would be achieved in large part by eliminating efforts related to climate change, such as the Clean Power Plan, and trimming initiatives to related to air and water quality. If enacted, 19 percent of the EPA’s workforce would be eliminated. The total loss at the EPA alone would be approximately 3,200 jobs.

“Literally and figuratively, this is a scorched earth budget that represents an all out assault on clean air, water, and land,” said Gina McCarthy, EPA administrator during the final years of the Obama administration. “You can’t put ‘America First’ when you put the health of its people and its country last.”

The Department of Energy’s cuts, which under any other administration would be considered draconian, are relatively tame at $1.7 billion, or 5.6 percent. DOE programs on the chopping block include:

  • Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy
  • Office of Nuclear Energy
  • Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability
  • Fossil Energy Research and Development Program
  • Weatherization Assistance Program and State Energy Program
  • Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) plus guarantee programs, greenhouse gas reducing technologies, and advanced vehicle programs

Meanwhile, California continues to advance aggressive efforts to decarbonize. For example, the state is on track for its regulated electric utilities to obtain 50 percent of their energy sales from renewable resources by 2030. Legislation signed into law just a few months ago requires statewide greenhouse gas emissions to be 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. Other state initiatives include aggressive requirements and goals related to distributed energy resources (including renewable energy), electric vehicles, and electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

Picker’s visit to the federal agencies in Washington this week is a reminder of California Governor Jerry Brown’s comment on the occasion of signing the “50 by ’30” legislation into law: “Climate skeptics don’t quite get it. They are in political Pluto, and we have to bring them back to Earth, where the rest of us live.”

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More Customers to Benefit from Florida Power & Light’s Commitment to Solar

Florida Power & Light Company, the third-largest electric utility in America and the largest generator of solar energy in Florida, this week announced an accelerated timetable to build nearly 600 megawatts of solar capacity across eight locations. The energy these projects will produce, which will be enough to fully support approximately 120,000 homes, will diversify the source of electricity for all customers on the grid and efficiently provide a little more green energy to the entire customer base.

Utility-scale solar is a cost-effective way of delivering renewable energy to everyone, and for customers who rent their homes or whose roofs are not suitable for solar panels, the type of projects FPL is undertaking may represent the only way of obtaining renewable energy. “We have been working hard to drive down the costs of adding solar so we can deliver even more zero-emissions energy to all of our customers. As the first company to build solar power generation cost effectively in Florida, we are proud to continue leading the advancement of affordable clean energy infrastructure. We have proven that it’s possible to cut emissions and deliver reliable service while keeping electric bills low for our customers,” said Eric Silagy, FPL president and CEO. Construction is expected to commence this spring. During peak construction, an estimated 200 to 250 people will be working at each site.

The company expects the new installations will be cost-effective over their operational lifetimes, which is consistent with other reported metrics. For example, FPL reports that its carbon emissions today are lower than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan’s goals for 2030, while the company’s typical residential customer’s 1,000-kWh bill is approximately 25 percent lower than the latest national average. Last year, according to the company, FPL’s residential bills were the lowest in Florida among reporting utilities for the seventh year in a row. In addition to the grid-scale projects announced this week, FPL has installed small-scale solar arrays for more than 100 Florida schools and other educational facilities.

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General Motors Vehicles Lose Weight, Gain Efficiency

General Motors is reducing its environmental footprint by shaving an average of 350 pounds from each of ten recently launched Buick, GMC, Chevrolet and Cadillac vehicles. The annual carbon emissions avoided from this weight loss is about equal to saving 28 million gallons of fuel, according to a statement issued by the company.

“We start with an understanding of the most important attributes to the customer, be it performance, EV range, interior space, towing capacity or fuel economy,” said Charlie Klein, GM executive director, global CO2 strategy, energy, mass and aerodynamics. “Then, we work to find the right mix of materials to deliver on that promise and exceed their expectations.”

General Motors explains that the company’s “Efficient Fundamentals” strategy includes advancing powertrain technologies, optimizing components and vehicle systems, improving aerodynamics, and lightweighting – reducing vehicle mass to achieve better performance overall without compromising safety or quality.

Photo of 2017 Chevy Volt
2017 Chevy Volt

For example, the 2017 Chevrolet Volt is 250 pounds lighter than the first generation model, which contributed to its 30 percent increase in range. The Chevrolet Cruze also lost 250 pounds, giving customers even better fuel economy and increased interior space. Improvements in size, content, structure and chassis delivered a loss of 700 pounds in the GMC Acadia. And the Buick LaCrosse, which is longer and wider than its predecessor, is now 300 pounds lighter thanks to advanced materials such as press-hardened, high-strength steels that also provide customers with efficiency and more responsive handling.

When it comes to lightweighting, General Motors points out that there is no single solution. The company may use composites for sports cars like the Chevrolet Corvette where power-to-weight ratio is paramount. When a blend of strength and low mass is required, for example on chassis components, corrosion-resistant aluminum is the solution. Meanwhile, ultra high-strength steel allows for some parts to be made of thinner gauges without sacrificing strength. GM also employs a mix of new manufacturing joining techniques, such as the world’s first aluminum-to-steel resistance spot welding.

Another way in which General Motors reduces emissions is by engaging its supply chain. According to a statement issued by GM, last year the company asked about 200 of its suppliers to disclose their energy use and carbon emission data to CDP, a global nonprofit that drives sustainable economies, in return for which GM offered resources to help. The 70 percent of invited companies that responded saved a cumulative $23 billion and reduced carbon emissions in total by 90 million metric tons, which is equivalent to:

Graphic showing greenhouse gas equivalencies.
Data calculated with United States Environmental Protection Agency’s Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator.

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Seeking to Reduce Urban Tailpipe Emissions, Ford to Launch Plug-In Hybrid Van Pilot in London

Photo of Ford Transit PHEV.To help improve air quality in London, Ford Motor Company will be deploying 20 plug-in hybrid electric Ford Transit Custom vans for downtown duties such as deliveries and maintenance work. By running solely on electric power for approximately 30 miles of city driving, these vehicles will contribute to reducing local emissions. This effort complements Ford’s plans to introduce 13 new global electrified vehicles in the next five years.

The Transit Custom plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) in the London trial are an advanced design that allows the vehicles to be charged with electricity for zero-emission trips, while featuring an on-board combustion engine for extended range when longer trips are required. A Ford telematics system will collect data on vehicle financial, operational and environmental performance to help understand how the benefits of electrified vehicles can be optimized.

“Ford is the No. 1 commercial vehicle brand in Europe and it’s now going electric. Teaming up with our London partners, we will also be able to trial software and telematics with enormous potential to reduce emissions and costs in the city,” said Jim Farley, chairman and CEO, Ford of Europe. “This new type of partnership demonstrates our evolution to both an auto and mobility company. We have lots of work to do, but everyone is so energized by this breakthrough opportunity.”

Commercial vehicles in London make 280,000 trips on a typical weekday, traveling a total of 8 million miles. Vans represent 75 percent of peak commercial traffic, with more than 7,000 vehicles an hour on the road in central London alone.

“The freight sector’s transition to ultra-low emission vehicles is central to cleaning up London’s toxic air,” said Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London. “Transport for London continues to lead by example by increasing the number of its own vehicles that are electric and will find the data from these trials an invaluable resource for the LoCITY program, which encourages the uptake of low-emission commercial transport.”

The Ford Transit plug-in hybrid program is expected to launch in the fall of 2017.

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Nevada Solar Dispute Nears Resolution After Court Remands Controversial Ruling

Picture of residential rooftop solar panels.A Nevada state court this week set aside part of the Public Utilities Commission’s controversial decision to change rates on existing solar customers because the Commission’s process lacked adequate notice to the public, but due to ongoing discussions between the parties the hotly contested issue may soon be at least partially settled anyway. Regardless of what happens at the Commission, the subject is certain to be revisited when the legislature next convenes.

The immediate result of the court’s ruling is that the part of the Commission’s order which would have reduced bill credits to customers who already have solar panels is set aside and remanded to the Commission, while the remainder of the ruling upholding the Commission’s order relating to new solar customers is affirmed.

But the court’s remand is likely to be superseded because the Commission, at a hearing coincidentally scheduled for tomorrow, will consider a settlement between utilities and customers to grandfather the 32,000 existing residential rooftop customers on the old rate for 20 years. If, as expected, the Commission ratifies the grandfathering agreement, the remanded case will become moot.

Since 1997, Nevadans have participated in a program called net energy metering, under which customers earn a kilowatt-hour bill credit for each kilowatt-hour of clean power they produce that exceeds their own consumption. The high value of the credit was a key factor in many Nevadans’ decision to install solar because the credit offset a meaningful portion of cost. The Commission’s recent decision radically changed the way credits are calculated and valued, and replaced the framework with a new system that values the excess much lower than before.

Recognizing that a critical element in the financial model for solar installations went away overnight, the Commission’s ruling caused nearly every solar installer to immediately abandon the state. The new formula also caused an uproar in the renewable energy community because it significantly reduces income that solar customers had been expecting to receive, causing what had been good investments to go under water (financially). The move to not grandfather customers also set a precedent that alarmed renewable energy advocates concerned that commissions in other states might follow Nevada’s lead.

While states do periodically shift gears on rates on a going-forward basis, it was well-known in Nevada that customers relied on the net metering tariff in making relatively significant long-term investments. While the Commission is legally entitled to change the tariff in a way that reduces payments to customers for excess solar production, for policy reasons such changes are often made only to new customers, not existing customers.

With regard to the process the Commission followed in this case, the court found that the Commission did not sufficiently notify the public of its intention, and therefore the public was deprived of its right to participate in the proceeding. It is well established in American law that public entities such as the Commission must provide notice of the matters before it. As to the question of how specific notice must be, the Nevada Supreme Court in a previous case explained that “[i]nherent in any notice and hearing requirement are the propositions that the notice will accurately reflect the subject matter to be addressed,” and that “notice must be specific enough to alert all interested persons of the substance of the hearing.” When notice is deficient, the court found, the result is a “denial of fairness and due process.” The requirement, which falls under the legal description “subject matter jurisdiction,” cannot be waived, does not require the affected parties to have been absent from the proceeding, and may be raised by any party or the court at any time.

The notice in this case not only did not include a sufficient description of the issue that was ultimately addressed, the notice specifically excluded the highly controversial matter by saying that the proposal “does not . . . [a]ffect the rights of [existing solar] customers in any way.” Based on the fact that courts as high as the Supreme Court of the United States have, for decades, held notice to be an “inexorable safeguard,” the Nevada court rejected a multitude of arguments that the deficient notice should not result in the court throwing out the Commission’s ruling.

However, the court also explained that its ruling in this case is limited to the procedural requirement of notice for existing customers, not to substantive policy issues related to existing solar customers or to anything relating to new solar customers. In fact, the court specifically rebuffed all objections raised by solar supporters relating to the validity of the Commission’s order on new solar customers, finding that the Commission’s order is not contrary to law, is not arbitrary or capricious, and does not violate the Contract Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

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100 MW Mustang Solar Project Begins Commercial Operation

Photo of Mustang Solar Project.
Mustang Solar Project

Thanks to a large new solar installation constructed by Recurrent Energy, a wholly owned subsidiary of Canadian Solar Inc., approximately 45,000 more homes in California will now have access to 100% renewable energy. The Mustang solar project, spread across 1,000 acres in Kings County, California, has reached commercial operation and is expected to produce 100 MWac/134 MWp of electricity.

“The commercial operation of the Mustang solar project continues a historic year that will see Recurrent Energy complete more than one gigawatt of U.S. solar photovoltaic (PV) projects,” said Dr. Shawn Qu, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Canadian Solar.

The renewable energy generated by Mustang’s single-axis trackers will be sold under long-term power purchase agreements to Sonoma Clean Power and MCE. The project is expected to produce enough electricity to power approximately 45,000 homes.

Sonoma Clean Power and MCE are both not-for-profit agencies, offering their customers the option of using environmentally friendly power, generated by renewable sources, like solar, wind and geothermal, at competitive rates.

The power purchase agreement allowed Recurrent Energy to secure a tax equity investment commitment from U.S. Bancorp Community Development Corporation. Adam Altenhofen, the bank’s vice president, commented on the reasons for the investment by saying “High-quality solar projects like Mustang are an important strategic investment for U.S. Bank, which provide jobs to local communities, while delivering clean, reliable energy to the state of California.”

Recurrent Energy employed approximately 450 during the peak of construction, and supported the local economy by spending more than $3 million on local construction materials and services such as food and housing. In terms of long-term economic benefits, the project will generate $3.6 million in tax revenue for the county and $8.1 million in tax revenue for the state.

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On-Demand Mobility Gets Greener: Uber Tests Electric Vehicle Leasing Program in United Kingdom

Photo of Jo Bertram, regional general manager of Uber in the UK.
Jo Bertram, regional general manager of Uber in the UK (photo courtesy Uber).

Uber, in partnership with Nissan and BYD, today launched a three-month electric vehicle (EV) leasing program in the United Kingdom. To encourage the company’s on-demand drivers to make the switch to all-electric mobility and lease directly from Uber, lease payments for the EVs will reportedly be competitive with comparable gasoline-powered vehicles. (Uber already facilitates leases for drivers through a number of third-party companies). Operating costs for the EVs will also be lower due to the relatively inexpensive cost of fueling a vehicle with electricity and the near absence of maintenance.

The service now being tested not only makes Uber a player in the clean mobility space, it also benefits drivers by offering an economical vehicle (helping drivers’ margins) and provides the Uber with a new revenue stream by getting the company into the potentially lucrative leasing business.

Uber is starting with 50 vehicles in London, and is partnering with the UK-based Energy Saving Trust to study the pilot and advise on next steps. If the pilot is successful, Uber says that hundreds of EVs could be on the roads next year.

Adding leased EVs to Uber’s portfolio follows similar pilot programs in Lisbon and Porto, Portugal, and Johannesburg, South Africa. Those pilots, launched under the “uberGREEN” moniker, did not entail leasing but did enable customers to request an EV for their ride (the BMW i3 was used for the 6-12 week programs). The cost of summoning an EV was at the uberX rate.

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Tesla’s Elon Musk Updates “Master Plan” – More Vehicles and Technologies Are Coming

Tesla Model X - Front View Doors UpWith the tenth anniversary of Elon Musk’s “Master Plan” approaching, the co-founder, Chairman, CEO, and Product Architect of Tesla Motors this week issued “Master Plan, Part Deux.” In the past decade, Musk has achieved (or is on the cusp of achieving) his previously-stated goals of:

  1. Creating an expensive, low-volume car (the Roadster);
  2. Using proceeds from that car to develop a lower-price medium-volume car (the Model S);
  3. Using proceeds from that car to create an affordable, high-volume car (the Model 3); and
  4. Providing solar power (SolarCity).

Musk remains intent on “accelerating the advent of sustainable energy,” and here is what he plans to do next:

Integrate Energy Generation and Storage

batteryBackupImage_ForWeb-2The goal of integrating energy generation and storage is why Tesla is acquiring SolarCity. Some on Wall Street are expressing skepticism of this transaction, but Musk justifies the combination on the basis of providing customers with a seamless experience that cannot be achieved by two separate companies.

Expand to Cover the Major Forms of Terrestrial Transport

Photo of Tesla Assembly Line

Following the highly-acclaimed Model S and plus the eagerly-anticipated Model 3, Musk reports that Tesla’s model line-up is set to expand with a future compact SUV and “a new kind of pickup truck.” He also writes in his blog that heavy-duty trucks and “high passenger-density urban transport” are in early stages of development and should be ready for unveiling next year.

We don’t know exactly what he has in mind for the Tesla Semi, but Musk says it is expected to deliver a substantial reduction in the cost of cargo transport while being safer than today’s comparable vehicles as well as being “really fun to operate.”

With regard to a new form of urban transport, here Musk is referring to autonomous vehicles that will “transition the role of bus driver to that of fleet manager.” Musk envisions a future of on-demand door-to-door transportation designed to accommodate all passengers, including those with wheelchairs, strollers, and bikes.

Autonomy

Image of Autopilot

Recognizing that fully self-driving technology involves far more than simply installing cameras, radar, sonar, and computing hardware, Musk nonetheless continues to forecast Tesla vehicles that are fully autonomous and possess “fail-operational capability,” which means that any given system in the car could break and the car will still drive itself safely. As for today’s Autopilot mode, Musk explains that the name is derived from autopilot in aircraft, where pilots are expected to continue to pay attention, monitor the technology, and be prepared to take control at any moment. In other words, Autopilot is actually partially, not fully, autonomous, and does not justify driver complacency. Moreover, even today’s Autopilot, despite extensive internal validation, remains in beta and will continue to be labeled as such until the technology is 10 times safer than the U.S. vehicle average.

In addition to the technological hurdles, Musk acknowledges that there will be a significant time gap, which will very widely by jurisdiction, before true self-driving is approved by regulators. Musk anticipates that worldwide regulatory approval will not occur without six billion miles of experience. Assuming today’s pace of 3 million miles of such experience per day today, we are about five years from the target.

Sharing

Uber NY Request Screenshot

Musk envisions privately-owned vehicles being available to shuttle others around using self-driving capabilities when not needed by the owner. With most cars sitting idle 90% to 95% of the day, the ability to hire one’s car out can generate income and offset the cost of owning or leasing. To make this easy, Tesla expects to incorporate a car-sharing feature into its phone app.

Musk also writes that in cities where demand exceeds the supply of customer-owned cars, Tesla will operate its own fleet.

Conclusion

In short, the goals outlined in Musk’s updated Master Plan are to:

  • Create stunning solar roofs with seamlessly integrated battery storage;
  • Expand the electric vehicle product line to address all major segments;
  • Develop a self-driving capability that is 10X safer than manual via massive fleet learning; and
  • Enable your car to make money for you when you aren’t using it.

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Major EV and Solar Semiconductor Supplier Acquired by Infineon

IFX_LOGO_RGBInfineon Technologies, Europe’s biggest chipmaker by revenue, is demonstrating its expectations of continued strong growth in electric vehicles (EVs), solar panels, and the Internet of Things (IoT) by purchasing Cree’s Wolfspeed Power subsidiary for $850 million. Wolfspeed specializes in power electronics used in a wide range of key components such as inverters. With this transaction, Infineon is showing that it intends to remain the industry leader for the technologies not only of today, but also of tomorrow.

Headquartered in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, 28-year-old Wolfspeed employs more than 550 highly-skilled workers across ten locations on three continents. The company, which holds (or has pending) more than 1,800 patents, promotes its hardware as providing greater power density and better efficiency than alternatives such as silicon. Power density and efficiency are particularly critical factors in high-voltage energy-intensive applications such as electric vehicles and solar panels.

Photo of Wolfspeed SiC Planar MOSFET
Wolfspeed SiC Power Semiconductor

Frank Plastina, Wolfspeed CEO, said: “By joining the Infineon team, Wolfspeed will now have all the advantages of a global company in our sector, including the ability to leverage Infineon’s market reach and infrastructure. With Infineon’s complementary culture and additional investment, we’ll be better positioned to unlock the potential of our portfolio and our people.”

Infineon ranks No. 69 in the Automotive News list of the 100 largest global suppliers with estimated worldwide sales to automakers of $2.8 billion in 2015.

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