PHEVs and EVs; Plugging Into a Lump of Coal

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John Petersen

Since I’ve stirred up a hornet’s nest over the last two weeks first by debunking the mythology that PHEVs and EVs will save their owners money and then by showing how PHEVs and EVs will sabotage America’s drive for energy independence, I figured I might as well go for the triple-crown of harsh realities by showing readers that in the U.S., where 70% of electricity comes from burning hydrocarbons, PHEVs and EVs won’t make a dent in CO2 emissions. They’ll just take distributed CO2 emissions off the roads and centralize them in coal and gas fired power plants.

I started to seriously question the policy arguments in favor of PHEVs and EVs when McKinsey Quarterly published an article titled “Profiting from the low-carbon economy” in early August. The article included a “Global carbon abatement cost curve” that shocked me because it showed that HEVs offered a substantial cash benefit from carbon abatement while PHEVs imposed a significant carbon abatement cost. A few days ago I got permission to reprint the original graph from a recent McKinsey & Company report titled “Pathways to a Low-Carbon Economy. Version 2 of the Global Greenhouse Gas Abatement Cost Curve,” 2009.”

McKinsey Graph.png

While the graph is fairly complex because it shows both the benefits and costs of various carbon abatement options and the potential amount of CO2 that each option could eliminate, the key issue is the relative positions that HEVs and PHEVs occupy on the curve. HEVs are shown on the left hand side of the graph between residential insulation retrofit and electricity from landfill gas; which means that HEVs save €30 ($43) per metric ton of carbon abatement. PHEVs are shown on the right hand side of the graph between nuclear power plants and low penetration wind farms; which means that PHEVs cost €12 ($17) per metric ton of carbon abatement. Since the McKinsey graph analyzed abatement costs at a ‘global’ level, I felt compelled to dig a little deeper and analyse their impact in the U.S.

In its latest report on greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., the Energy Information Administration said that CO2 emissions from electricity generation were 2,433.4 million metric tons in 2007. In its 2007 annual summary of electric power in the U.S., the EIA reported that net generation of electric power during 2007 was 4,157 billion kilowatt-hours from the sources identified in the following graph.


When you divide the total CO2 emissions from electricity generation by the total amount of electricity generated, it works out to 585.4 grams of CO2 per kWh. While the figures vary among manufacturers, the average electric-only range of the PHEVs and EVs planned by General Motors, Nissan (NSANY), Mitsubishi (MMTOF.PK), BYD (BYDDF.PK), Tesla Motors, Fisker Automotive, Th!nk Global and a legion of others is roughly 4 miles per kWh of useful battery capacity. So in the U.S., a PHEV or EV will ultimately be responsible for about 146 grams of CO2 emissions per mile unless the owner has the foresight and dedication to buy solar panels or wind turbines to generate the electricity his PHEV or EV will use.

To review the math, a gallon of gasoline releases 20.35 pounds of CO2 (9,231 grams) when it is burned in an internal combustion engine. So a normal car that meets current CAFE standards of 27.5 mpg is responsible for roughly 336 grams of CO2 emissions per mile. In contrast, an HEV like the Prius, which slashes fuel consumption by roughly 40% through a combination of recuperative braking, idle elimination and electric launch will be responsible for roughly 201 grams of CO2 emissions per mile.

The following table compares typical vehicle costs (without tax subsidies) and CO2 emissions per mile for each class of vehicle. It then goes two steps further and (a) calculates an average carbon abatement cost for HEVs, PHEVs and EVs, and (b) calculates an incremental carbon abatement cost for PHEVs and EVs. Both carbon abatement costs are expressed in dollars of capital spending per gram/mile of CO2 emissions.

Abatement Cost
Abatement Cost
Internal combustion $20,000 336 g/m
Prius HEV $26,500 201 g/m $48.15 g/m
GM Volt class PHEV $40,000 146 g/m $105.26 g/m $245.45 g/m
Nissan Leaf class EV $40,000 146 g/m $105.26 g/m $245.45 g/m

Is it any wonder that Vinod Khosla keeps telling interviewers that in the U.S., China and India, PHEVs and EVs will be plugging into a lump of coal for years to come?

News stories, speeches and press releases can only maintain the electric drive illusion for so long. Sooner or later the public is going to realize that it’s all hype, blue smoke and mirrors, and that PHEVs and EVs have little of substance to offer customers in the U.S. market. When the public comes to the realization that electric drive vehicles:

  • Won’t save their owners significant amounts of money;
  • Won’t be as fuel efficient as HEVs when battery capacity is factored into the equation;
  • Won’t be as CO2 efficient as HEVs when utility emissions are factored into the equation; and
  • Are nothing more than feel-good, taxpayer subsidized eco-bling,
  • the backlash against lithium-ion battery developers like Ener1 (HEV) and Valence Technologies (VLNC) that have attained nosebleed level market capitalizations based on electric drive hype may be vicious. The big winners should be developers of cheap and efficient high-performance lead-carbon batteries like Exide Technologies (XIDE) in cooperation with Axion Power International (AXPW.OB); C&D Technologies (CHP) in cooperation with Firefly Energy; and East Penn Manufacturing in cooperation with Japan’s Furukawa Battery Co. (FBB.DE).

    It would be wrong for readers to assume that I dislike lithium-ion battery technology, because I believe it will be an increasingly important part of the coming cleantech revolution. I also believe that companies like Advanced Battery Technologies (ABAT), Altair Nanotechnologies (ALTI), Johnson Controls (JCI) and A123 Systems (IPO pending) that are taking a diversified approach by focusing on products for a wide variety of consumer, industrial, utility and military applications will grow and prosper. But the companies, reporters, financial analysts and politicians that have built a mountain of unreasonable expectations from an electric drive molehill may be in for a tough time.

    DISCLOSURE: Author is a former director and executive officer of Axion Power International (AXPW.OB) and holds a large long position in its stock. He also holds a small long position in Exide (XIDE).

    John L. Petersen, Esq. is a U.S. lawyer based in Switzerland who works as a partner in the law firm of Fefer Petersen & Cie and represents North American, European and Asian clients, principally in the energy and alternative energy sectors. His international practice is limited to corporate securities and small company finance, where he focuses on guiding small growth-oriented companies through the corporate finance process, beginning with seed stage private placements, continuing through growth stage private financing and concluding with a reverse merger or public offering. Mr. Petersen is a 1979 graduate of the Notre Dame Law School and a 1976 graduate of Arizona State University. He was admitted to the Texas Bar Association in 1980 and licensed to practice as a CPA in 1981.

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    1. Your unseemly common sense and rational thinking is not suitable for this subject. You must bobble like Palin and hope like Obama before people will listen to you. You will be ignored until you rant like Cheney, Obama, Bush, Rush, Beck, and the huge crowd of power-seekers that dominate the U.S. mindset.

    2. Too few have given thought to the McKinsey work. Glad to see you are aware of it.
      While I agree, once again, with the argument you raise, there are a few points you don’t seem to consider.
      1) Until very recently, advanced Pb acid batteries were not a commercial option. Even now, there is little published field experience. In contrast, even with their faults, NiMH & Li batteries have varied and extensive public exposure. “Better the devil you know…”
      2) R&D particularly related to Li batteries is very interesting and somewhat encouraging. Based on some of the published work, it is not unreasonable to anticipate substantial improvement in commercially available Li batteries within approximately 10 years.
      If that timeframe and the anticipated performance are achieved, it is not inappropriate to begin developing transportation technology based on these batteries.
      3) One could extend your argument to include high efficiency, low emission ICE vehicles, of which roughly 2 dozen are now available or announced for the European market with anticipation that some of them may go to the USA. In fact, one could extend the argument in your previous article to claim that it is unethical for most people to drive a vehicle larger than a compact car. (But I previously indicated I didn’t wish to explore the creatures in the can you opened. And now I find myself falling into that can!)
      4)While reducing emissions is an admirable goal, the advanced technology vehicles are attempting to address multiple goals. Another one of those, particularly in the USA, is reduction of consumption of “foreign” fossil fuels. PHEVs and BEVs would use electricity that is largely generated from domestic fuel sources. As a result, balance of trade may improve as would USA GDP. Further still, the existing electrical generating and T&D assets in the USA are grossly underutilized at night. Vehicle electrification will substantially improve ROI of these assets. That in turn will help the electric utilities “accept” requirements for emissions and efficiency improvements, not to mention decentralization of electrical generation.
      5) In addition to de-coupling from foreign fuels, an increasing concern is “peak oil”. Broadly, there are three strategic options to address this: a) decrease fuel consumption (even thought, by itself this will not provide a sustainable solution); b)develop alternate, sustainable hydrocarbon sources; c) convert to alternate non-hydrocarbon fuel sources. The USA is finally addressing option a) with the increase in fuel efficiency standards. Option b) is being actively targeted by a variety of 2nd generation “biofuel” projects. Option c) likely will be represented by BEVs or FCEVs. All of these options will require at least 10 years before meaningful impacts are seen, more likely 20 years for option c).
      Implementing PHEV and BEV technology “now” will allow field testing, technology development and
      market acceptance. With the likely cost and performance of the near term PHEVs and BEVs, I do not expect that sales will be high during the next decade. Even with a large increase in fuel cost in the next few years, BEVs will be too limited in capability for much of the US market and both, BEVs and PHEVs, will be too expensive. Therefore, although your concern is reasonable, I don’t think there will be a significant impact due to real world considerations. The best indication of this is that, even after a much heralded introduction, sales of the Tesla BEV appear to be “less than stellar”.
      A more interesting question raised by your use of this McKinsey report (and a similar one from them last year)is, why hasn’t the USA aggressively pursued at least those options identified as costing little, or even returning a net cash benefit?

    3. You are spot on…on average. There are though significant pockets of the north american economy that have much lower grid coefficients- some that are dominated by non-fossil fuel energy. The interesting question is whether these jurisdictions should be encouraged to lead the way. Plugging into renewables and large scale hydro and giving this segment of the auto industry a real chance to grow.

    4. Mike, you gotta love McKinsey because they do top quality work that would cost a small fortune to duplicate. My premium subscription to McKinsey Quarterly is priceless.
      The nice part of the advanced lead-carbon batteries is that the chemistry does not change and the experience we’ve had over the last 100 years is directly applicable. The tough part has been getting automated manufacturing equipment down. Once the products are introduced, there should be little or no technology or performance risk. So in truth the devil you know better is lead-carbon.
      I fully agree that we can expect some very good things from lithium-ion and other automotive efficiency technologies over the next decade and we need to begin building infrastructure today to ensure a smooth transition. My big grump is with the folks who expect miracles overnight.
      The next couple decades will be periods of wrenching and often uncomfortable change. Over the long term I don’t think we’ll need to worry about the ethics of choices as much as the economic pain of bad choices.
      The DOE has any number of programs to address the low-hanging fruit, but that’s dull stuff like caulking, weather strips and insulation. Most folks would rather dream of a cheap EV.
      Doug, we need to be developing and testing new innovations whenever doing so is both reasonable and affordable. I only get my Irish up when people want to portray an experimental technology like PHEV and EV as something more than an experiment. We need to build them, we need to test them in real world conditions, and then we need to make a decision to either commercialize the concept or try something else.
      In the process we have a responsibility to do a good job of expectations management so that the unwary are not sucked into overvalued investments that entail risks they don’t understand.

    5. The thing I hate about the coal argument is it makes it sound like plug-in = 100% coal powered vehicle, which is just not true for the vast majority of the US. This argument is frequently thrown out by people who are against any plug-ins. If you look at the US avg number that you have calculated, 585.4 grams of CO2 per kWh, and compare it to coal, which is 900-1000 grams of CO2 per kWh, you’ll see it’s clearly not the case. The fact is, the US usually means a mix of energy sources, not 100% coal (it’s even slightly less than 50% now on avg). Also the mix varies among areas, so people in California (probably going to be one of the largest markets for BEVs/PHEVs) for example will see substantially lower emissions for electricity than people in West Virginia for example, just because of power mix.
      If you compare your chart to the current monthly chart, posted below, it seems like coal is going down; it might be temporary, but it’s a good trend to have.
      As for the public (ie consumers), all they will care is if it saves them money or if it reduces THEIR CO2 emissions/gas usage. Currently a plug-in or EV won’t save you any money (just like a hybrid won’t save you money over a fuel efficient compact car), but it will reduce CO2 emissions/gas usage for the specific driver. That’s going to be the most important point for consumers, esp if you look at the success of the hybrids.
      I think other issues will play a bigger role in PHEV/EV acceptance, such as availability of charging stations, reliability of batteries, and most importantly, cost of the vehicle.
      I don’t think anyone expects miracles to happen overnight (it’s not like the grid can handle something like that happening anyways) and I’m pretty sure most BEV advocates know this. I’ve been a BEV advocate for quite sometime, but I expect it will be a long time before they hit 50% of the vehicles sold in the US. One can easily tell just by looking at hybrid adoption rates; BEVs are even more expensive than hybrids, so logic dictates the adoption rate might even be slower. So now seems like a great time to start bringing some plug-ins into the market or we might never see if they are viable in consumer hand. It also seems for the foreseeable future, battery production capacity will greatly outstrip the demand for PHEVs or BEVs, so I’m not particularly worried or feel guilty on that front.
      The other issue you are talking about seems to be the diminishing returns you get when talking about saving fuel. It’s the same argument people use against hybrids (moving from an SUV to a slightly more fuel efficient SUV saves a lot more gas than moving from a normal car to a hybrid).
      Mike Alexy seems to have gone over a lot of the points as to reasons for PHEVs & BEVs. The only other bit I want to add is the reduction of local pollution (noise and emissions), which is important for many urban areas.

    6. You make a good point that coal may be a bit of an overstatement, but it’s still a question of diminishing returns with 336 grams per mile in CAFE compliant car, the first $6,500 in PHEV add on costs reduces the total by 135 grams and the next $13,500 only get another 55 grams.

    7. EV vs Gasoline – The Correct Comparison
      See: “Real-world Mitsubishi i MiEV stats” by Marc Geller (Green Car Congress). This is an on-the-road cost comparison between an i-MiEV and a same-sized gasoline powered vehicle, a Subaru R1e. A 533 mile “cost comparison” test conducted by the Japan Auto club:
      It cost 7 times more for the gasoline than it cost for the electricity to drive the same distance. In other words, for the same amount of money, you go 7 times further in an EV.
      The CO2 ratio:
      35.12 kg CO2 to produce the electricity for the EV, compared to 174.6 kg CO2 produced by the ICE burning gasoline. That’s 5 times more CO2 produced by gasoline power compared to the EV.
      Peterson’s figures are way off, and his claims are bias and twisted.
      Even though you’re going to initially burn coal for the EV, you still come out way ahead. For that same dollar, you will go 7 times further and produce 5 times less CO2.

    8. Aureon, I searched greencarcongress and couldn’t find the article you referenced. Since the study was funded by the Japan Auto Club it’s a fairly save bet that they were working with Japanese gasoline prices. It’s also a pretty safe bet that the power grid that provided the basis for the CO2 calculations did not have the same mix we have in the U.S. Heck, I could have made everything look much rosier if I’d used Swiss gas prices and Swiss carbon emission numbers, but they’re be meaningless for people in the U.S. My figures are neither biased nor twisted – they just reflect the harsh reality that PHEVs and EVs don’t have much of a carbon impact when you start with a dirty grid.

    9. EV vs Gasoline
      I just did some checking on Japan. Their current gas price is $4.80 per gallon and their CO2 per kWh averages 516 grams.
      GCC reports that the MiEV will use 200 wh per mile instead of the 250 wh per mile that every other EV manufacturer on the planet claims. But even if we take the 200 wh per mile at face value, it still works out to 106.7 kWh for a 533 mile trip, or 55 kg of carbon. So we know that the 35.12 kg figure is a bald faced lie that understates the carbon by 35%.
      When you double the gas price, use a 25% better kWh per mile and then understate the carbon content of the electricity by 35%, that MiEV looks real good to a lazy reporter who doesn’t bother to fact check the reasonableness of the numbers.

    10. John,
      I applaud the effort and detail you put into your analyses and tend to find a lot of useful insight and information in them. However I fear that the conclusions you draw from them could, at times, be reaching too far. Whether development and selling of EVs or PHEVs is justifiable is not merely a function of present day CO2 abatement costs relative to some other solutions.
      For one thing, those abatement costs will fluctuate regionally by quite a lot depending on the regional energy mix, which makes average g/kwh figures of little use. Some regions that produce a sizeable percentage from renewables would have much smaller figures for abatement cost.
      Secondly, the portion of renewables in the energy producing mix is bound to increase. I believe the EU is committed to 20% by 2020.
      Thirdly, the individual consumer of electricity has some choice over the CO2-intensity of his/her electricity production. If he is willing to pay a $15000 premium for an EV, he/she may very well be willing to pay premium for not plugging it into a lump of coal.
      Lastly, we will ultimately need even better efficiency and flexibility in using different energy sources than present HEVs offer. EVs seem to fit that description, and those who are willing and able to pay a premium price for them today may in fact not be elitists, hypocrites or unethical at all, but on the contrary, quite indispensable with regard to making this technology affordable for greater masses.

    11. Some comments indicate that the grid may not be as dirty as claimed in this article. Certainly there are regional variations. However, at least at present, it is expected that much of the vehicle recharging will occur at night. Generally, the generation plants operating at night are nuclear and coal. Nuclear already tends to operate at or near 100% capacity. Coal facilities reduce output somewhat during the night. If the night time load increases, for example due to PHEVs & BEVs, this load will likely be met by coal generation, certainly at first. Thus, much of the electrical generation used to recharge vehicles may be even “dirtier” than national or regional averages.

    12. rasp, I agree wholeheartedly that there is much more to a PHEV or EV decision than CO2, in fact to my mind CO2 is the least relevant because I’m a global warming agnostic. This article is actually the third in a series that started with Debunking the PHEV Mythology, followed up with How PHEVs and EVs Sabotage Energy Independence and then finished with CO2. Part of me hates dealing with these issues one bite at a time, but trying to do it all at once would be too much for most readers to digest in a single sitting.
      It’s also true that the facts we have today are not necessarily the facts we’ll have as the world around us changes. Nevertheless, there are so many different future views that it’s much easier to deal with the current facts and then change my opinion as the facts change.
      Overall, my goal is to encourage the immediate implementation of technologies where they will do the most immediate good. So for now, given a choice between using 16 kWh of batteries to make 10 Prius class HEVs or one Volt class PHEV, the multiple vehicle option is more attractive because it takes 9 more gas guzzlers off the roads and replaces them with imperfect but good gas sippers.
      Mike Alexy, thanks for pointing out some of the realities of the power generating business. I’ve known that the baseload plants run 24/7 because it’s very hard to turn a switch on a coal or nuclear plant. Frankly, it surprises me to learn that coal can be turned up and down, but I guess you learn something new every day. I’ve generally tried to avoid observing that most off-peak power comes from coal and nuclear because that kind of truth invariably draws a very hostile reaction.

    13. There are limits to the operating range of a coal plant and to the rate of change. And, older technology is generally less flexible than newer plants with modern control systems. Following is a link to a relatively non-technical article that provides a bit of background.
      Also, even a nuclear plant can be throttled, although for power generation this does tend to be a bit more limited. Possibly the most aggressive example of such operation is nuclear propulsion on naval vessels.

    14. EV vs Gasoline – An Actual On-the-Ground Comparison –
      See: “Real-world Mitsubishi i MiEV stats” by Marc Geller:
      This is an on-the-road cost comparison between an i-MiEV and a same-sized gasoline powered vehicle, a Subaru R1e. A 533 mile “cost comparison” test conducted by the Japan Auto club:
      It cost 7 times more for the gasoline than it cost for the electricity to drive the same distance. In other words, for the same amount of money, you go 7 times further in an EV.
      The CO2 ratio:
      35.12 kg CO2 to produce the electricity for the EV, compared to 174.6 kg CO2 produced by the ICE burning gasoline. That’s 5 times more CO2 produced by gasoline power compared to the EV.
      Even though you’re going to initially burn coal for the EV, you still come out way ahead. For that same dollar, you will go 7 times further and produce 5 times less CO2.
      What Mr. Petersen is doing is making up figures that don’t apply, because of what a previous blogger pointed-out – The costs and the characteristics of fuel, coal, and electric power vary from one location to another. So none of Mr. Petersen’s figures are accurate. The stats that I provided from Japan are Real World actual results for that time and place.
      Another benefit is that you’re replacing gasoline or diesel fuel that was polluting the air you’re driving through. 70% of that was derived from foreign oil, including double dirty tar sands. If the guy in front of you is driving an EV, you’re not sucking up his exhaust.
      It’s a lot more cost effective to scrub the exhaust of one coal burning power plant than a hundred thousand tail pipes of used vehicles. Driving EVs removes the direct concentrated pollution away from where people would be breathing it – to where it can be controlled.
      Now the next step is to fix or replace coal with a cleaner technology and keep the EVs and plug-in hybrids coming. They are the solution, especially when we charge them with renewable energy such as wind or solar or geothermal or hydroelectric or gasified biomass or algae.
      Some one tell Mr. Petersen not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    15. Aureon, with all due respect, the numbers are meaningless without some clarification.
      First, the gas price in the example is $6.10 per gallon ($121.34/19.89)
      Second, the CO2 impact of electric power in Japan (410 g/kWh) is significantly lower than most estimates I’ve been able to find.
      Third, a road course like the one they used for this test gives far better mileage performance than city driving. The MIEV apparently got 6 miles per kWh while the best estimates for PHEVs and EVs are 4 miles per kWh.
      Fourth, the comparison I’ve made in the article relates to HEV vs PHEV, not ICE vs PHEV.
      Fifth, when you take the purchase price differential into account, the PHEV falls flat on its face because battery depreciation adds roughly $100 to the PHEV side of the ledger.

    16. One critical point that John misses here is that most of the electricity that is generated at night by coal-fired power plants is lost into the ether. It takes so long to bring a coal plant online that operators feed the boilers at night to maintain heat rate. So, when John says that we would be plugging into a lump of coal, he is technically correct. What he omits is that this same lump of coal would be burning whether or not we were plugged into it (obviously I’m assuming that the majority of V2G plug-ins would occur at night, which is where a little plug-in intelligence comes in).

    17. Ben, while that was clearly the case when I was much younger, I’ve seen little or nothing that proves substantial electricity is sent to ground at night. If you have a reference I would love to see it. If you don’t you may want to question your assumptions.

    18. I think there are a few issues here that are overlooked. These are current vehicle prices and inputs. $/kwh for lion batteries should come down dramatically, lets say $400/kwh coupled with better utilization of capacity, depth of dicharge beyonde 50% then your incremental cost of abatement is better than that of the HEV and you’ve cute your CO2 nearly in half. Add on the RPS standard and the plug-ins look very attractive….if CO2 is your primary concern.

    19. John,
      Love your work. One area where you understate your point:
      > unless the owner has the
      > foresight and dedication
      > to buy solar panels or
      > wind turbines to
      > generate the electricity
      > his PHEV or EV will use.
      Actually, it doesn’t matter. As long as the marginal fuel for electricity production is natural gas (and DOE projections show it will be for decades), it doesn’t matter how green your electricity is because by making the decision to put it in your car you deprive the grid of that electricity and cause it to burn more natural gas.
      It’s really the equivalent of your marginal cost of capital. You can set up all sorts of green electricity to help out the grid if you like, but as soon as one electron goes in your car then you are burning natural gas until something else becomes the marginal fuel.
      You could link the purchase of a windmill with a buying a BEV, but what sense does that make? You could just as easily buy a windmill along with a gasoline car and sell the green power to the grid as well.
      Also, I like to focus on the fully capitalized GGE equivalent cost. In other words how high would gasoline prices have to be to make the costs the same for a gasoline version of a comparable electric car using standard driving assumptions.
      My results:
      Prius: $4/gallon
      Volt: $9/gallon
      Tesla: $15/gallon
      Better Place: $14/gallon
      The biggest sensitivity factor in my analysis is the battery cost and as you’ve pointed out, there isn’t much hope on this front.
      Obviously, except for the Prius no one is going to pay those kinds of prices for “green” transportation.
      Well, not many people apart from the government and tech billionaires.

    20. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. This is important stuff and the advocates are frequently so vocal that people assume they must be right. I’m all in favor of anything that reduces or eliminates waste in all its pernicious forms. I’m dead set against anything that increases waste. My biggest problem with the lithium ion crowd is not their products, but the way they seem to think the world will use their products. The batteries have immense potential and will almost certainly give rise to new applications that we can’t even imagine. Wasting those batteries to move 3,000 pounds of steel at highway speeds is somewhere between stupid and sinful.


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