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Two D.C. universities plan to get half their energy next year from solar power. Supporters hope the precedent-setting deal with a North Carolina energy firm will encourage more colleges, businesses and governments to move away from fossil fuels. But questions persist about whether solar power is too expensive and inefficient. Kojo explores solar adoption at American and George Washington universities and what it means for D.C. and the future.
- Greg Dotson Vice President for Energy Policy, Center for American Progress
- Charles Frank Non-resident Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution
- Meghan Chapple Director, Office of Sustainability, George Washington University
MR. KOJO NNAMDIStarting next year, solar panels on the east coast of North Carolina will help power dorm rooms and Foggy Bottom and in AU Park. George Washington and American University announced last week that they'll be going solar, getting over half their electricity from the sun starting in 2015. As more and more homes in our region are fitted with solar panels, many hope this energy deal will be a model for other schools, businesses and government buildings to move away from fossil fuels.
MR. KOJO NNAMDISome still worry though that solar is not as efficient as other sources of energy. The panels have been around for over 60 years and only started to produce more energy than they used last year. Joining me to discuss G.W. and American's solar energy deal and what it might mean for the future is Meghan Chapple, director for the Office of Sustainability at George Washington University. Meghan Chapple, good to see you again.
MS. MEGHAN CHAPPLEThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso joining us in studio is Charles Frank, nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Charles Frank, thank you for joining us.
MR. CHARLES FRANKThank you.
NNAMDIAnd joining us from studios at the Center for American Progress is Greg Dotson, vice-president for Energy Policy at the Center for American Progress. Greg Dotson, thank you for joining us.
MR. GREG DOTSONIt's my pleasure.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, if you have comments or questions, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Should universities be doing more to get their money out of fossil fuels? Would you be willing to pay higher tuition to attend a solar university, 800-433-8850? Or you can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or send us a tweet @kojoshow. Meghan Chapple, this is a ground-breaking contract for renewable energy. G.W. and American are partnering with Duke Energy in North Carolina to get half their electricity from solar starting next year. What does this opportunity mean for these universities?
CHAPPLEWell, universities in general have been looking for ways to address climate change. There's really a movement across the country for higher education to commit to carbon neutrality. And so we're all looking for innovative ways to address that. And this means that we have found another way that higher ed. and other large institutions can really reduce our carbon footprint if others can strike deals like this.
NNAMDILet's take a step back. These so-called solar farms are nearly 250 miles from where we're sitting here in Washington. How do we get electricity from North Carolina up here?
CHAPPLEThat's the beauty of the grid and I can't say that I'm a technical expert but I can say that we have constructed and designed this deal with our consultant customer First Renewable such that we will be purchasing the power from that solar farm directly. And it will be transmitted to the grid that we pull from more broadly.
NNAMDIGreg Dotson, this is a large purchase of renewable energy, enough to power over 8,000 homes each year but the U.S. still only gets about a quarter of a percent of its electricity from the sun. How bright do you think is the future of solar?
DOTSONI think it's very bright. The nation's energy sector is just undergoing an amazing and historic transformation right now. We are moving from a model of for decades we had vertically integrated utilities. We've have large central stations, typically coal-based -- oftentimes coal-based that would transport electricity over looming transmission lines into our cities and suburbs. And now what we're seeing is a lot of innovation where we're having these kinds of projects added on remotely, but we're also having rooftop solar and smart grids and other deployment. And this is -- it's a dramatic change and solar's going to play an important role.
NNAMDICharles Frank, George Washington and American are going to pay a constant price for solar at a time when the cost of energy keeps going up, while Duke Energy Renewables gets to expand with a guaranteed customer for the next 20 years. Is this a win for everybody?
FRANKIt's certainly a win for George Washington University. I think if I were president of George Washington University I would've jumped on this opportunity because I think it's very good for the university, both from an economic point of view and from a public relations perspective. It's a good deal for Duke because they are developing a project and they're getting a fair price for the electricity that they're producing.
FRANKI'm not so sure, however, it's a good deal for the American taxpayer because this deal is fundamentally, to a large degree, financed by tax -- investment tax incentives which make it possible to happen. But for Duke and for George Washington, it's a great deal.
NNAMDIWe're talking about two D.C. universities that are going solar in the year 2015 and inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Do you want your tax dollars going to energy companies to build solar farms? How much of the government be getting involved with the energy market, 800-433-8850? You can send email to email@example.com or go to our website kojoshow.org, ask a question or make a comment there.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Greg Dotson, vice-president for Energy Policy at the Center for American Progress. Meghan Chapple is director for the Office of Sustainability at George Washington University. And Charles Frank is nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. Charles, you wrote a blog post for Brookings called why the best path to a low-carbon future is not wind or solar power. What do you see as the problems with solar power?
FRANKWell, one of the problems is that it's very expensive to build a solar plant. For example, it costs, according to data provided by the Energy Information Administration, four times as much per megawatt of capacity to build a solar plant than it does to build a natural gas-fired plant. And in addition, a natural gas-fired plant can operate at 90 percent of capacity whereas a typical solar plant operates at 15 or 20 percent of capacity. So the cost of solar is very high, which is why you need to have government subsidies of one sort or another to make it feasible.
NNAMDIGreg Dotson, let's dive in a little bit more to the scientific aspect. How do solar panels actually produce electricity?
DOTSONWell, primarily they work -- the sun strikes, you know, materials that are designed to react to the photons of the sun. It activates electrons and that generates an electric current that can then be utilized either at the point of generation or transmitted through, like, conventional, you know, power plants along transmission lines.
DOTSONI think the key thing to see about solar is just the dramatic changes that have happened over just the last, you know, few years. The cost of solar panels has dropped dramatically. Installation has increased ten-fold in just five or six years. It's -- when solar panels were originally introduced 35 years ago, they were just very extremely specialized applications and space and other very atypical uses. Prices have come down 99 percent from that time.
DOTSONAnd that's one reason that we're seeing it being such a rapid expansion, creating jobs around the country. We're now at a place where the solar industry employees, more than twice as many people that work in the refining industry. And that's not to denigrate jobs associated with oil refineries. It's just to show how quickly the sector is changing.
NNAMDIWell, in addition to the concern about solar maybe being too expensive that Charles just mentioned, not efficient enough at generating energy, and even that it can't survive as a viable source of energy without the government's help, what would you say to that?
DOTSONWell, I would say that every energy -- I think all the energy sectors are subsidized to a certain degree. The five biggest oil companies, you know, have received $2.5 billion annually in federal tax breaks. And the congressional budget office, which is a nonpartisan institute, you know, took a look at these subsidies. And they say that from 1916 to 2005 federal energy tax breaks were, you know, primarily -- their word -- primarily intended to stimulate domestic production of oil and gas.
DOTSONSo there's a lot of catch up that has to happen here but we -- the country and the planet really does need to transition to a low-carbon future and solar has to be a big part of that.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We got an email from Sunny who says, "G.W. owns lots of acres in D.C." and G.W. and American for that matter -- "Why don't they build their own solar power farm here and get off the grid altogether," Meghan Chapple?
CHAPPLEWouldn't that be brilliant?
CHAPPLEWell, in fact, we do have a relatively large campus for an urban center. We're located right in the heart of Washington just down the street from the White House and down the street from the national mall. So there -- that space we have is really on our rooftops. And our analysis shows that if we were to plaster every inch of our rooftops with solar photovoltaic tiles, it would get us a percentage of the way there, perhaps 5 to 10 percent at the most.
CHAPPLESo being in an urban center, that's not really an option unfortunately. But part of why this offsite location is good for our needs is because it is large scale and because it is within our regional grid. And we wanted to ensure that it was in the PJM grid. And part of the reason that the deal is innovative is the place it's located. It's east of Washington, D.C., so east of the congestion that we face in the grid. And so there are some financial capacity credits that are part of the innovativeness of this deal that allow us to site our source offsite.
NNAMDIAnd Charles Frank, we got an email from Rita who says that, "Your guest says that solar power costs more. How about the cost of the Gulf when there was an oil spill?"
NNAMDIApples and oranges?
FRANKYeah, apples and oranges. That's not electricity but I would like to say though that the work that I was doing at Brookings focused on utility solar energy production, which is different from rooftop solar. Rooftop solar may make a lot of sense because you don't have to built a lot of the other paraphernalia associated with utility scale plants. So I think you have to make a distinction between those two. But as Meghan has pointed out, you can't get the scale from rooftop that you get from the utilities. So from their perspective it was more important to get the scale.
NNAMDIMeghan, George Washington and American are the first universities to do something like this. Do you think this contract could be a model for other universities?
CHAPPLEPerhaps for other universities and perhaps for other large institutions that are in urban settings that want to create large scale sources, renewable energy. Now there are other universities who do participate in large scale renewable energy but usually that's done onsite or closer to their campus. So I don't want to give the impression that we're the only ones sourcing renewable energy at a large scale. But in this way and partnering in this way together to leverage our collective buy has been really important.
NNAMDIOn to Brian in Olney, Md. Brian, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BRIANYeah, hi. I'd like to address the statement that the universities are going to be consuming the electricity directly from this facility in North Carolina. I don't see how the electrons can follow the contractual path when they follow the path of least resistance. It seems to me it's a nonsensical statement that the electrons are flowing directly to the university.
NNAMDIGreg Dotson can explain how this will work. Greg.
DOTSONI think the caller makes a point that essentially when you add electrons to the grid, they flow where the demand is. And so really what this agreement does is it provides -- it does provide that contractual agreement. It allows for an accounting method which lets the university assure its students and its alumni that it is responsible for that renewable generation. And whether or not the specific electron from that solar power plant is reaching a dorm room in Washington, D.C., whether all of it is -- I think becomes almost beside the point.
DOTSONAnd if your goal is to reduce carbon emissions, which is what our focus needs to be, whether you're reducing the pollution in North Carolina or you're reducing the pollution in Washington, D.C. or Virginia or Maryland, the results of the atmosphere into the planet is the same.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Have you installed solar panels on your home? What has been your experience with solar power? You can give us a call, 800-433-8850. Charles Frank, there's wide agreement among scientists that we need to move away from fossil fuels in order to stop climate change. If not solar power, what do you suggest we do?
FRANKWell, there are a number of alternatives. For example, nuclear power, while it has its issues and its problems does not generate carbon. And there are many people who believe that in order for us to really address the problem with climate change, we need to give further thought to developing nuclear within the United States and worldwide. So that's one option.
FRANKHydroelectric facilities do not generate carbon dioxide. And I think it's underappreciated that natural gas facilities -- a highly efficient modern natural gas electric facility generates one-third the carbon emissions as a coal plant. So the big problem, from my point of view, is getting away from coal because that's where most of the emissions come from.
NNAMDIGreg Dotson, what would you say to the environmental consequences of what Charles is suggesting?
DOTSONI think I agree a lot with a lot of what he said. I would say that, you know, as the organization the Center for American Progress is agnostic about fuel types, what we care most about are affordable policies for the middle class and for addressing climate change, which is our very serious issue. Now when you look at how do you achieve the carbon reductions on the scale we need to overtime, natural gas cannot achieve that goal. And we looked very closely at natural gas. And in a recent publication we determined that we really need to peak and then decrease our use of natural gas in the coming decade.
DOTSONSo I know Charles' paper looked at natural gas and finds it in the immediate term. You're going to -- a cheaper alternative is switching from coal to gas but in the longer term we need these solar resources. And the market is bringing them. People want them, consumers want them and they are being deployed today.
FRANKYeah well, I think it's instructive to look at the recently published guidelines for existing power sources that the Environmental Protection Agency has just promulgated. One of the major aspects of that -- of those proposed guidelines are what they call building blocks. And one -- there are four building blocks to reduce emissions, one of them being to increase the efficiency of coal-fired plants. Another one being to substitute natural gas for coal.
FRANKSo as part of the EPA's program doing what I suggest, which is to substitute natural gas for coal, has a way of substantially reducing environmental -- or carbon dioxide emissions is a viable policy.
NNAMDIOn to Angelo in Severna Park, Md. Angelo, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ANGELOHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I wanted to quickly respond to the caller who asked about, you know, how can you trap the electrons.
ANGELOI'm sitting in my Volt and as a Maryland resident I choose 100 percent wind power because you can choose your electricity in Maryland. And the bumper sticker on the back of my Volt says, this Volt's charged -- is riding on the wind. So, you know, the idea here is that, you know, nobody thinks about a second if you take your paycheck, you deposit it in the bank and that that money is your money. When you withdraw it you don't say, was this the dollar bill I gave you? It's an accounting mechanism. And just like that, it's the same thing for electricity.
ANGELOAnd no -- you don't have to be a -- well, my final comment would be is, you know, as a Maryland resident, anybody here who lives in Maryland and I think, maybe, in Virginia, but certainly in Maryland, you can chose where electricity comes from. You don't have to be a university that comes up with an agreement with a, you know, a company in North Carolina. There are 100 percent wind power electricity options. And I've chosen one of them that actually sources from local wind. So all the electricity I buy comes from the Mountains of West Virginia and western Maryland, all wind.
NNAMDIGreg Dotson, care to comment?
DOTSONI think that's a great analogy. I think, the -- all I care about is that I get my dollar out of the bank, I don't have to get the specific one that I put in.
NNAMDICharles Frank, care to comment?
FRANKNot really. I think, it's -- all points are all well taken.
NNAMDIGotta take a short break. Angelo, thank you very much for your call. But if you have called, stay on the line, we'll be returning to this topic when we come back. It started out with a conversation and will continue as a conversation about D.C. Universities going solar, George Washington and American University. 800-433-8850, what kind of alternative energy do you find most exciting, sun, wind, natural gas? You can shoot us a tweet @kojoshow, I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back, we're discussing the contract that allows the George Washington University and American University to get more than half of their power, starting in 2015, from solar power. We're talking with Meghan Chapple, director for the Office of Sustainability at George Washington University. Charles Frank is non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute.
NNAMDIAnd Greg Dotson is vice president for Energy Policy at the Center for American Progress. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Meghan, some critics of this deal say it doesn't go far enough, as long as universities are invested in fossil fuels. They're still making climate change worse, the critics say. Do universities need to divest from fossil fuels, entirely?
CHAPPLEWell, that's a very hot topic right now on the higher ed sector. And students are rallying behind the effort to divest from fossil fuels. And I kind of see them -- I definitely see the two issues as related but I also see them as somewhat apples and oranges. I would like to think that making a direct investment in a solar farm that is being built because of our demand is a pretty strong signal, that G.W. is very committed to getting away from fossil fuel based sources of energy. The divestment question, that's a whole other conversation.
NNAMDIHow about you, Greg Dotson?
DOTSONI think it's a trend that seems to be growing. You know, Stanford just recently announced that they were gonna completely divest from fossil fuel. So it's a trend, I think, as we've seen so often, over the decades, students are often leading and advocating for the direction of the country. And here's a strong example of that.
NNAMDIHere's Bobby in Silver Spring, Md. Bobby, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BOBBYHi, I think a great segue because I called to talk, for a moment, about the Solar Decathlon, the European Solar Decathlon...
BOBBY...is made up of about 20 academic teams from the United States, Europe and Asia. The decathlon is underway right now. And you can follow it by going to solardecathlon24 -- 2014.fr, for France, and as Meghan knows, George Washington University, Catholic University and the University of Maryland have all participated in this Solar Decathlon, which involves designing, engineering, building and competing with solar powered houses. So I think a lot of students and people in academic institutions are already on board, they're excited, these are wonderful teams, these are kids who are getting great experience that will lead them into a solar future.
NNAMDICare to comment on that, Meghan?
CHAPPLEYeah, we did enter the Solar Decathlon, last year, in the United States. And the irony of it was, this is our first time doing it and they moved it from the National Mall to the West Coast. But, you know, we took that in stride. We did it, again, it was a partnership. We have -- there's a really strong network of universities here in Washington, D.C. And that time, it was G.W. partnering with Catholic. Catholic has an architecture school, G.W. has an engineering school.
CHAPPLESo we work together to design and build the harvest home and it captured all the rainwater that falls around the home to water the plants in the yard around the home, as well as captured all the sunrays that fell upon the home, to use in the home. It was a really beautiful design, and then now it's been adopted by a veterans' organization in California and they're using it for some returning vets.
NNAMDIBobby, thank you very much for your call. We move on to Pete in Baltimore, Md. Pete, you're on the air, go ahead, please.
PETEHi, I'm on Bluetooth so forgive me if you don't hear me well, but I'm just calling to say that I listened to the comment earlier about how it's more practical or more financially practical to build a natural gas plant than a solar plant, and I just want the listeners to understand that when you factor in all of the taxes that the consumers have paid to the natural gas and coal industry over the years, that dwarfs the solar industry.
PETESo if you take a look at what we've put in as consumers, to build up and make natural gas and coal cheaper, you have to look at that in the same respect as solar's a fledgling industry that we need, and we need to support it in the same way. So in a sense, that cheap natural gas and coal is actually cheap because we were basically funding it for so many years.
NNAMDICharles Frank, is that correct?
FRANKWell, I don't -- most of the studies I've seen suggest that the subsidies going to the fossil fuels are -- in terms of effect on electricity prices -- are very, very minor compared to what's been done in the renewable area. For example, in wind, we have something called -- or had something called a production tax credit which when it went away temporarily in 2013 -- or was perceived to be going away in 2013 -- the new capacity added for wind declined by 92 percent between 2012 and 2013 in the United States.
FRANKIn other words -- and solar is even more dependent on these subsidies. The depletion allowance is no longer available to most large oil and gas producers. I don't think there's any evidence that the subsidies to oil and gas far outweigh the subsidies to solar and wind.
NNAMDICare to get off your agnosticism, Greg Dotson?
DOTSONI would say I do think that there is evidence. The Nuclear Energy Institute estimated that the oil and gas industry received 76 percent of all federal energy tax preferences from 1950 to 2010, as well as 50 percent of total federal support. And a group called DBL Investors estimated that over the last century, the oil and gas industry has received in average annual federal support, including tax breaks, $74 for every one dollar in federal renewable energy support.
DOTSONSo I think that there's a lot of -- I think there's some -- in addition to the CBO report I mentioned earlier, I think there's a number of estimates about how the fossil fuel industry has gotten a lot of support to get where it is today.
FRANKI just remark that 1950 was a long time ago, and yes, there were substantial incentives to the oil and gas sector then, but most of those are gone.
NNAMDIOn, therefore, to Tim in Washington, D.C. Tim, you're on the air, go ahead, please.
TIMYes, I'm just curious, whenever there is a discussion of alternative fuels, no one mentions Geothermal. According to a study done by the Finns who are the world's expert in this technology, United States could supply 25 percent of its energy needs through geothermal. Why, if it's -- why are conversations on alternative energy sources absent, why is geothermal absent from these discussions?
NNAMDIWell, you just made it present in this conversation. What do you say to that, Greg Dotson?
DOTSONI would say the same sort of incentives that other renewable energy technologies get are available to geothermal. I think that there are some challenges with developing geothermal. You know, it's easy to tell without a lot of investment, for example, where you have good wind and solar resources. It's harder to site a geothermal plant because you could put potentially millions of dollars into drilling holes that would be used for the geothermal plant which may or may not be something they would ultimately use to put into production.
DOTSONSo there's challenges there. I do think, you know, it's growing. I think it's certainly a viable technology in parts of the country. But those are the challenges it faces.
NNAMDIWhat do you say, Charles Frank?
FRANKWell I'd say geothermal does not get the same degree of subsidy as solar does at the moment. Wind is going through a bad patch because they're not getting any subsidies from the production tax credit. But the geothermal is a viable alternative and in some instances, a very economical one. So I don't think it should be excluded, it's part of the solution.
NNAMDIOn to Joyce in Poolesville, Md. Joyce, you're on the air, go ahead, please.
JOYCEHi, how are you? I just wanted to say that I had a solar on my roof and two electric vehicles in my garage. It works great. Our solar provides 85 percent of our electric needs for the year. That includes our electric cars and basically as a result, we are driving for free on solar. And the cost of our solar electricity and the fuel to -- as compared to the cost of the electricity for the house prior to solar and the cost of fuel to fuel cars prior to electric cars, we're saving -- we're actually paying less now.
NNAMDIWell, Joyce, I'm glad you called because you might be able to answer a problem that Arrah (sp?) in Fairfax, Va. seems to be having, so I'm gonna put you on hold so you can listen, while I bring up Arrah in Fairfax, Va. to talk about his recent experience. Arrah, go ahead, please.
ARRAHYes, I just got a quote for my house to fully power all the -- appliances I have, and it was close to $30,000. But I wasn't doing it just to save money, I wanted to be independent, just in case power went down, or there's a civil war. And with all the right wing stuff going on. So -- but what I was shocked about was that, and this is just amazing, that if power does go down, you're not allowed to use your solar panels. And that is the law in Virginia, I guess. And I thought that was crazy, because that's exactly why I wanted to buy it, not just to save money.
ARRAHThey said that I would have to buy a $10,000 battery to store the energy, so that if power goes down and I cannot use, you know, the electrical companies or my solar panels, that I could use the energy saved in the battery. And I thought that was ridiculous, because that's like getting a new job, but your old boss could fire you. So it just doesn't make sense. And just a little note. I just recently went to the Reagan Library in California, and they have a whole section of how he was a champion of solar power.
ARRAHAnd I thought that was odd because from what I heard growing up, is that Carter put up solar panels at the White House, and Reagan took it down. So I wonder if anybody knows how Reagan was a champion of solar power. Thanks.
NNAMDII don't think we want to get into the politics of that right now, because we're running out of time, but I'm gonna go back to Joyce in Poolesville, to see if what she's experiencing in the state of Maryland is comparable to what you're experiencing with solar power in the commonwealth of Virginia. Joyce, can you help Arrah?
JOYCERight, a little bit, yeah. The states are different. The laws are different. In Maryland, we have net metering and it sounds like there's something similar in that regard to Virginia, though I don't think it's as solar friendly in policy. In net metering, you're tied to the grid, so the energy that the solar is producing excess does go back into the grid, and the grid becomes basically your large battery. So when you're not producing solar, say during the night or in the winter, long winter nights, you're pulling your banked solar from the grid.
JOYCENow, in order for that to take place, then -- the grid has to be, again, tied in, so as a result of that tie in, when there's a mass...
JOYCE...energy outage, power outage, thank you, the system, when they're working on the lines, they can't have live power being fed into those lines from your solar, and so if that was happening, then you could potentially blow a worker off the line, because of trying to fix the grid. So that's basic reason why you have to buy a battery backup.
NNAMDIJoyce, Joyce, thank you very much for your call. Arrah, you got the picture now?
ARRAHYes, thank you very much.
NNAMDIThank you very much, Arrah. Glad we could solve that problem. Greg, we've spent a lot of time talking about solar coming from North Carolina, but there are also more and more households in our region with solar panels. What can you tell us about solar power in this D.C. region? What incentives are local governments offering?
DOTSONSo it's definitely a growing sector, Kojo. In Washington, D.C., we currently have seven megawatts of solar installed. That's, there's 92 companies in the District, employing 810 people. So that's great for the local economy. In Maryland, we have 133 solar companies employing 2,000 people, and in Virginia, there's 125 solar companies employing 1,900 people. So that's a, you know, shows that there's some robust activity there.
DOTSONIn Washington, D.C., we have a number of programs that the local government has established to help promote solar energy, and you know, the previous caller was talking about wanting to have independence from the grid, and I think that even if you're not able to generate electricity when the power goes down, you can still assert some independence through owning solar energy, because essentially, you isolate yourself from fluctuations and fuel costs going into the future. And that's something I think that a lot of people find very comforting, when they see volatile prices in electricity markets.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Greg Dotson is vice president for energy policy at the Center for American Progress. Greg, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDICharles Frank is a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Charles Frank, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd Meghan Chapple is director for the Office of Sustainability at George Washington University. Meghan, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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