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Archive for the ‘BrightSource Energy’ Category

photo: Todd Woody

In Thursday’s New York Times, I write about how the nascent solar thermal boom in California’s Mojave Desert is being derailed by lawsuits from environmental, union and Native American groups:

SAN FRANCISCO — Just weeks after regulators approved the last of nine multibillion-dollar solar thermal power plants to be built in the Southern California desert, a storm of lawsuits and the resurgence of an older solar technology are clouding the future of the nascent industry.

The litigation, which seeks to block construction of five of the solar thermal projects, underscores the growing risks of building large-scale renewable energy plants in environmentally delicate areas. On Jan. 25, for instance, Solar Millennium withdrew its 16-month-old license application for a 250-megawatt solar station called Ridgecrest, citing regulators’ concerns over the project’s impact on the Mohave ground squirrel.

At peak output, the five licensed solar thermal projects being challenged would power more than two million homes, create thousands of construction jobs and help the state meet aggressive renewable energy mandates. The projects are backed by California’s biggest utilities, top state officials and the Obama administration.

But conservation, labor and American Indian groups are challenging the projects on environmental grounds. The lawsuits, coupled with a broad plunge in prices for energy from competing power sources, threaten the ability of developers to secure expiring federal loan guarantees and private financing to establish the projects. Only one developer so far, BrightSource Energy, has obtained a loan guarantee and begun construction.

Like so many of this state’s troubles, the industry’s problems are rooted in real estate.

After President George W. Bush ordered public lands to be opened to renewable energy development and California passed a law in 2006 to reduce carbon emissions, scores of developers staked lease claims on nearly a million acres of Mojave Desert land. The government-owned land offered affordable, wide-open spaces and the abundant sunshine needed by solar thermal plants, which use huge arrays of mirrors to heat liquids to create steam that drives electricity-generating turbines.

But many of the areas planned for solar development — including the five projects being challenged — are in fragile landscapes and are home to desert tortoises, bighorn sheep and other protected flora and fauna. The government sped through some of the required environmental reviews, and opponents are challenging those reviews as inadequate.

“There’s no good reason to go into these pristine wilderness areas and build huge solar farms, and less reason for the taxpayers to be subsidizing it,” said Cory J. Briggs, a lawyer representing an American Indian group that has sued the United States Interior Department and the Bureau of Land Management to stop five of the solar thermal plants. “The impacts to Native American culture and the environment are extraordinary.”

The risk that the suits will succeed in blocking construction could make it more difficult for the builders to get federal loan guarantees or attract private financing.

Officials with the Loan Programs Office of the United States Energy Department did not respond to requests for comment. However, department guidelines classify litigation risk as a significant factor to be considered when qualifying renewable energy projects for a loan guarantee.

Brett Prior, a solar analyst with the GTM Research firm, said commercial lenders also viewed the suits as a negative. “In general, there are more projects chasing project finance than there are funds available, so the investment banks can be selective when deciding which projects to support,” he said. “Projects with lawsuits pending will likely move to the back of the queue.”

The conflict over the California projects has already accelerated a shakeout among competing solar technologies.

Tessera Solar announced last week that it had sold its 709-megawatt Imperial Valley solar dish project, which had become the target of two lawsuits. The buyer, AES Solar, develops power plants using photovoltaic panels like those found on residential rooftops. The move follows Tessera’s sale of its 663.5-megawatt Calico solar dish power plant in late December, a week after the company lost its longstanding contract with a utility. Calico is the subject of three lawsuits, and the project’s new owner, a New York firm called K Road Power, said it planned to abandon most of the Tessera solar dishes and instead use photovoltaic panels.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

In the New York Times on Wednesday, I follow up my story on solar power plants and desert tortoises:

In an article in The New York Times on Wednesday, I write about how the fortunes of big solar power plants in the desert Southwest can hinge on the way developers handle imperiled wildlife in the path of their projects.

The protected desert tortoise has become the totemic animal for environmentalists fighting to ensure that the huge solar farms don’t eliminate essential habitat for the long-lived reptile and other wildlife, like the bighorn sheep and flat-tailed horned lizard.

The tortoise has been in decline for decades, and the rampant changing of the desert — including the development of casinos, strip malls and subdivisions, and designation of off-road recreational vehicle areas — took its toll long before construction began late last month on the Ivanpah solar power plant, the first large-scale solar thermal project to be break ground in the United States in 20 years.

Still, the solar farms will industrialize the desert on an unparalleled scale. The seven projects already licensed in California will cover 42 square miles with immense mirror arrays.

But as much as some biologists fear that the need to generate electricity without carbon dioxide emissions will harm the desert tortoise, the projects offer an opportunity for intensive research on the critter. That’s because regulations require solar developers to monitor tortoises for three years after they are relocated.

“Certainly the monitoring of the translocated desert tortoises will yield useful research information on the ability of desert tortoises to adapt to new surroundings,” Larry LaPré, a wildlife biologist with the United States Bureau of Land Management, said in an e-mail.

Such data is critical. While environmental regulations and efforts by developers like BrightSource Energy, the builder of the Ivanpah project in Southern California, are tailored to remove the tortoise from harm’s way during construction, the survival of the animals depends on how well they adjust to their new homes.

The track record on tortoise relocations is not encouraging. In 2008, more than 700 tortoises were moved from the Fort Irwin military installation in Southern California so the base could expand. Nearly half the relocated tortoises died within two years from, among other things, predation by coyotes and ravens, according to state records.

Biologists I met recently at the Ivanpah power plant site were far more optimistic about the relocation of 23 tortoises found in the project’s first phase.

“The tortoises at Fort Irwin were moved a lot further than these, and there also was a big problem with predators there,” Peter Woodman, a biologist who worked on the military project, explained as he stood by a holding pen where the Ivanpah tortoises will live until they are moved next spring.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

In The New York Times special Energy report, I write about how the success of large-scale solar power plants being built in the desert Southwest depends on how developers deal with the imperiled desert tortoise and other wildlife:

NIPTON, Calif. — On the construction site of the $2 billion Ivanpah solar power plant here, burly laborers slowly walk around their trucks, dropping to their knees to peer underneath before turning the ignition. Hanging on each rearview mirror is a placard warning workers to “Look under your car for desert tortoise before you drive away!”

Road graders and backhoes crawl along at 10 miles per hour, led by biologists wearing green hard hats who scan for tortoises in a landscape studded with creosote bushes. “Nobody is allowed on the site without a biologist to escort them,” said Mercy Vaughn, the lead biologist for BrightSource Energy, the Oakland, Calif., company that is building the 370-megawatt power plant, the first large-scale solar thermal project to break ground in the United States in two decades.

The imperiled desert tortoise sets the pace here in the desert Southwest, and how developers deal with a host of protected plants and animals has become crucial to getting vast renewable energy projects built. That means hiring scores of biologists, managing the relocation of species and acquiring thousands of acres of replacement habitat.

With seven large solar power plants already approved that would cover 42 square miles of the California desert with huge mirror arrays, solar dishes and towers, environmentalists and regulators have increasingly become concerned about the impact that industrialization of the desert will have on fragile landscapes.

“If wildlife issues are not at the top of a developer’s list, they should be,” said Karen Douglas, the chairwoman of the California Energy Commission, which licenses large solar thermal power plants. “The footprint of these solar projects is unprecedented, and obviously they can impact a range of species.”

Developers underestimate the importance of desert animals at their peril.

The California Energy Commission in October, for instance, approved Tessera Solar’s huge Calico project in Southern California only after the company agreed to slash the project nearly in half to avoid having to relocate most of the 104 tortoises found on the site this year. And the commission’s staff has indicated that it is unlikely to recommend the licensing of Solar Millennium’s 250-megawatt Ridgecrest power plant because of its impact on the desert tortoise and the Mohave ground squirrel.

Late last month, the Quechan Indian Tribe sued the federal government over its approval of a second Tessera power plant, contending that the 709-megawatt Imperial Valley Solar Project would harm the flat-tailed horned lizard, an animal proposed for endangered species protection. It is part of the tribe’s creation story.

As the first big solar thermal power project to undergo licensing in 20 years and the first to begin construction, Ivanpah is being watched closely by environmentalists, regulators and competitors over how it handles wildlife challenges.

BrightSource, which is backed by Google, Morgan Stanley and several oil companies, has signed contracts to deliver 2,610 megawatts of electricity to utilities in the state. It took three years for the project to be licensed by the California Energy Commission as BrightSource and environmental groups tussled over the power plant’s impact on the desert tortoise, bighorn sheep and other species that roam the 3,582-acre site in the Mojave Desert.

BrightSource shrank Ivanpah by 12 percent, reducing the number of desert tortoises that would have to be relocated and avoiding an area of rare plants. The portion of the project that would most affect wildlife was cut by 23 percent.

The energy commission in September licensed Ivanpah over the objections of the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity and other groups that argued it would eliminate high-quality habitat for the tortoise.

“If you put a project in the wrong place and even do some things to reduce its impact, it’s still bad,” said Lisa Belenky, a senior lawyer with the Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco. “We’re really trying to get companies and regulators focused on lands that have already been disturbed.”

The Ivanpah site is just over the Nevada border, about 40 miles southwest of Las Vegas. The neon glow of two hulking casinos looms in the distance. An incongruous patch of luminescent green marks an 18-hole golf course adjacent to the site.

“Everyone wants to do the right thing, but everyone is concerned because there are so many precedents that are being set since we’re the first ones through the hoop,” Todd Stewart, the Ivanpah project manager, said recently as he stood amid the desert scrub as biologists tracked a tortoise that had been outfitted with a radio transmitter. The orange and brown tortoise, which the biologists said was probably 30 to 40 years old, was about the size of a soccer ball.

By 2014, nearly six square miles of government-owned desert surrounding Mr. Stewart will be covered with 347,000 mirrors, each the dimension of a billboard. The mirrors will focus the sun on a three 459-foot towers topped by water-filled boilers to create steam that will drive turbines to generate electricity.

BrightSource executives take pains to point out that they designed Ivanpah to minimize its disturbance of the desert. Vegetation, for example, will be trimmed rather than plowed as equipment is installed.

Following conditions of its license, the company fielded an army of more than 50 biologists to capture and radio-tag tortoises in the 900-acre first phase of the project and ensure none were harmed as construction began.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

In Friday’s New York Times, I write about the beginning of the long-awaited solar boom in the Mojave Desert and how it may well be short-lived if crucial federal incentives for renewable energy are allowed to expire in the coming months:

NIPTON, Calif. — The long-promised solar building boom in the desert Southwest is finally under way. Here in the Mojave Desert, a dice throw away from the Nevada border, giant road graders and a small army of laborers began turning the dirt for BrightSource Energy’s $2 billion Ivanpah project, the first large-scale solar thermal power plant to be built in the United States in two decades.

The Ivanpah plant is the first of nine multibillion-dollar solar farms in California and Arizona that are expected to begin construction before the end of the year as developers race to qualify for tens of billions of dollars in federal grants and loan guarantees that are about to expire. The new plants will generate nearly 4,000 megawatts of electricity if built — enough to power three million homes.

But this first wave may very well be the last for a long time, according to industry executives. Without continued government incentives that vastly reduce the risks to investors, solar companies planning another dozen or so plants say they may not be able to raise enough capital to proceed.

“I think we’re going to see a burst of projects over the next two months and then you’re going to hear the sounds of silence for quite a while,” said David Crane, chief executive of NRG Energy, on Wednesday after he announced that his company would invest $300 million in the Ivanpah plant.

Solar developers depend on two federal programs to make their projects financially viable. The most crucial is a loan guarantee program, expiring next September, that allows them to borrow money on favorable terms to finance up to 80 percent of construction costs.

The other is the option to take a 30 percent tax credit in the form of a cash payment once a project is built. Although the tax credit does not expire until the end of 2016, the option to take it as a cash payment disappears this year, making it far less valuable to a start-up company that is just beginning to generate revenue.

With both Democrats and Republicans promising to rein in the federal budget, it is unclear whether lawmakers will extend the programs in any form. “That could stall a number of projects and even lead to the failure of some,” said Ted Sullivan, an analyst with Lux Research, a consulting firm in New York.

Yet no one in the desert here wants to think too much about those looming clouds.

“Ivanpah represents a transformational moment in our energy equation,” said John Woolard, BrightSource’s chief executive, who was joined Wednesday by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at Ivanpah’s groundbreaking ceremony. “It demonstrates that the U.S. can lead in the drive for renewable energy at scale by building the largest solar plant in the world with new technology.”

The eight California projects that are expected to break ground this year will turn 46 square miles of the desert into a futuristic landscape of mirrors, towers and solar dishes. State officials estimate the plants will create 8,000 jobs in a state with a 12.4 percent unemployment rate.

During its three years of construction, Ivanpah will employ as many as 1,000 laborers in a recession-scarred region.

“In the last year, I haven’t worked,” said Basilio Yniguez, a 36-year-old pipefitter and father of seven, as he helped build a holding pen last week for threatened desert tortoises on the Ivanpah site. “Thanks to the green thing going up, I’m working.”

The state is supporting the industry in part by mandating that California utilities get a third of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

“When you look at the raw number of kilowatt-hours we need, I don’t see how you get there without large central station solar projects,” said Pedro Pizarro, a top executive with Southern California Edison, one of the state’s largest utilities.

Unlike the photovoltaic panel systems found on rooftops, most of the new solar plants will use thousands of large mirrors to heat liquids to generate steam that drives conventional electricity-generating turbines.

“Without the Department of Energy coming in to assume a lot of the risk, you might not find lenders willing to lend, particularly if you’re a start-up with untried technology,” said Nathaniel Bullard, a solar analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

Other hurdles also stand in the way of the solar expansion. For some plants, multibillion-dollar transmission lines must be built to carry electricity from the desert to cities. Some environmentalists continue to oppose the projects’ impact on imperiled wildlife, such as the desert tortoise, and may sue to stop construction.

The competitiveness of large-scale solar thermal plants in California also depends on the cost of natural gas, the state’s dominant source of electricity. According to Mr. Bullard, gas-fueled plants can produce electricity for about 10 cents a kilowatt-hour. After including the government subsidies, solar thermal plants are expected to generate power at 13 to 17 cents a kilowatt-hour, which the industry says is close enough in price to be competitive.

So far, Ivanpah is the only California solar thermal project to win a government loan guarantee, although other projects have applied and are awaiting decisions from the Energy Department.

“We are sensitive to the deadlines and are doing everything we can so that these projects can move forward,” said Jonathan Silver, the executive director of the department’s loan program. “There’s a significant demand for these funds.”

The uncertainty has left even some of the licensed solar projects in limbo.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo of desert tortoise tagged with a radio transmitter at the Ivanpah solar farm site: Todd Woody

In Yale Environment 360 on Wednesday, I interview John Woolard, chief executive of BrightSource Energy, the California solar developer that has begun construction of the first large-scale solar thermal power plant to be built in the United States in two decades:

Today, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, and other dignitaries gathered in the Mojave Desert to officially break ground on BrightSource Energy’s Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System, the first large-scale solar thermal power plant to be built in the United States in nearly two decades.

BrightSource is one of a half-dozen big solar farms, with a combined electricity-generating capacity of 2,829 megawatts, licensed by the California Energy Commission over the past two months. By year’s end, California and federal regulators expect to approve additional projects that will produce a total of 4,143 megawatts. At peak output, that’s the equivalent of several nuclear power plants and more than seven times the solar capacity installed in the United States last year.

The approval of the projects comes after years of environmental review and controversies over the installations’ impact on water, wildlife, and fragile desert landscapes. The power plants licensed so far will cover some 39 square miles of desert land with a variety of new and old solar thermal technologies. Unlike rooftop photovoltaic panels that directly convert sunlight into electricity, solar thermal uses the sun to heat liquids to create steam that drives electricity-generating industrial turbines.

BrightSource’s 370-megawatt Ivanpah project, located just over the California border, 40 miles southwest of Las Vegas, is the world’s largest solar-thermal power plant project currently under construction. The company, led by CEO John Woolard, received a $1.37 billion loan guarantee from the United States Department of Energy to build the project, which will deploy 347,000 large mirrors that will surround three towers on 3,500 acres of federal land. The mirrors will focus the sun on a water-filled boiler that sits atop the tower to create high-temperature, high-pressure steam.

Woolard, 45, came to BrightSource as chief executive in 2004 after co-founding Silicon Energy, an energy efficiency software company, and stints at California utility PG&E, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and VantagePoint Venture Partners, a leading Silicon Valley green tech venture capital firm. He sat down with Yale Environment 360 contributor Todd Woody at BrightSource’s Oakland, Calif., headquarters to talk about the future of Big Solar and the challenges the industry faces — from a woefully inadequate electricity grid to the imperative of minimizing water use — as multibillion-dollar projects finally begin to become a reality.

Yale Environment 360: Are we witnessing the birth of a major new solar industry in the United States?

John Woolard: I hope. The number I always go back to is that we have done 74,000 permits for oil and gas in the last 20 years and we finally have five or six for solar. That’s a good step forward. The agencies are learning how to permit, they’re learning how to move forward. It’s great for the industry and we can finally get some size and consequence.

e360: As the photovoltaic industry increasingly becomes dominated by overseas companies in China and elsewhere, does the sheer scale of these solar thermal projects in the U.S. give the country the opportunity to become the technological and market leader?

Woolard: Oh, yeah. Solar thermal is very different from [photovoltaic technology]. The power has different characteristics and is more reliable. They’re almost apples and oranges. Solar thermal has got very interesting We don’t have a quantity and energy problem; It’s a collection and distribution problem.” attributes and characteristics that make it unique.

In the U.S. we’re lucky. The southwestern U.S. has high desert, which means it’s closer to the sun, less atmosphere to go through. It’s the best solar resource anywhere, outside the Anaconda Desert in Chile or a few places. Harnessing that resource effectively is the most important thing. So we don’t have a quantity and energy problem; it’s a collection and distribution problem.

e360: BrightSource’s Ivanpah project is not only the first large-scale solar thermal project to break ground, it is the first to deploy a new power tower technology. Why is that significant?

Woolard: Our team was part of building older trough plants and you learn a lot. If you take a power tower, you get higher temperatures and pressures. That gives you higher thermo-to-electrical conversion efficiency. Think of that as more efficiency, less waste, lower cost. Because of that, you need fewer mirrors, less solar field, and you have a more efficient design.

The other gets down to how you actually build on the land. If you take the older trough designs or anything with a lot of mirrors, [it] would degrade the land. It’s more damaging from a soil and runoff perspective.

The big [problem] is water. What is the world going to look like over the next 20, 30, 40 years? Water in the desert is going to become a much more challenging proposition. So we’ve gotten water usage down to a minimum — the lowest of anybody in the world, basically.

You can read the rest of the interview here.

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photo: Todd Woody

I wrote this story for Grist, where it first appeared.

The anemic economic recovery may have hit the dog days of summer with consumer spending and factory orders slowing, but the new energy economy continues to surge, according to a report released Tuesday by Ernst & Young.

Venture capital (VC) investment in renewable energy, electric cars, energy efficiency, and other green technology jumped to $1.5 billion in the United States in the second quarter of 2010, a nearly 64 percent spike over the second quarter of last year. Green tech investment now has returned to the record levels of the third quarter of 2008, before the global economic collapse shut down the VC’s ATM.

So where’s the money going? Between March and June, at least, investors hitched a ride with startups developing electric cars and the infrastructure to support them. Better Place, the Palo Alto company building electric vehicle charging networks around the world, snagged $350 million. Fisker Automotive, a Southern California startup building a sexy and pricy plug-in hybrid sports sedan called the Karma, scored $35 million, according to the report.

Solar remains a hot opportunity for venture capitalists, with nearly $439 million invested in the second quarter, a 183 percent increase from the year-ago quarter.

It’s no coincidence that the beneficiaries of investors’ largesse are also those startups that received federal loan guarantees to build big solar power plants. (Raising additional capital usually is a requirement for obtaining such federal loan guarantees.)

BrightSource Energy, for instance, secured a $1.37 billion loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Energy to build its first solar power plant, now undergoing licensing in California. It then quickly raised $180 million from investors.

VCs also continue to pour cash — nearly $200 million in the second quarter — into energy efficiency startups, which tend to be far less capital-intensive than renewable energy companies.

So it’s a good time to go pitch that great green tech idea you’ve been kicking around, right?

Not necessarily. Ernst & Young notes that nearly 59 percent of investment in the second quarter went to so-called later-stage startups that are well on their way to rolling out products.

In other words, venture capitalists seem to be more interested in priming the pipeline for initial public offerings or acquisitions that will produce a big pay day than in financing what green tech investor Vinod Khosla calls “science experiments.”

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photo: Todd Woody

In The New York Times on Thursday, I write about the solar industry’s dismay over the rent and other fees the United States government will charge developers to build big solar power plants on federal land in the desert Southwest:

The nation’s biggest landlord, the United States government, has set the rent it will charge developers who build solar power plants on federal land, and some prospective tenants are not happy.

Solar developers will actually pay two fees – the lease for the land along with what the Bureau of Land Management calls a “megawatt capacity fee” based on how much electricity a project generates.

“Since we don’t have authority to collect royalties for wind and solar projects, we had to come up with a methodology to convert that electrical generation into an upfront rent payment,” Ray Brady, manager of the bureau’s renewable energy team, said in an interview.

But potential developers see a disparity. “The proposed B.L.M. rental fees are in many cases two times higher than market rates for private land,” Monique Hanis, a spokeswoman for the Solar Energy Industries Association, said in an e-mail message. “The B.L.M. must collect ‘fair market value’ from developers, but this seems to go beyond that threshold.”

That methodology is a work in progress as the agency tries to adapt decades-old formulas designed for oil and gas leasing and mineral extraction to renewable energy production.

Some 23 million acres of federal property are suitable for large-scale solar development, according to the bureau, and the agency has received more than 200 lease applications from developers who covet hot and sunny desert real estate in the Southwest.

Solar farms typically require vast swaths of land, meaning the lease fees can be considerable depending on a project’s location and local property values. The Bureau of Land Management’s solar rents range from $15.70 an acre in Hidalgo County, N.M., to $313.88 an acre in Riverside County, Calif.

For instance, BrightSource Energy will pay the government about $427,000 a year in rent for its 3,400-acre Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System in San Bernardino, Calif., now undergoing licensing. The company, based in Oakland, Calif., will also pay an annual megawatt capacity fee of $2.6 million for the 392-megawatt solar thermal power plant. Fees over the 25-year life of the contracts that BrightSource has signed with California utilities would total about $76 million.

In neighboring Riverside County, First Solar, a solar module maker and developer based in Tempe, Ariz., plans to build a 550-megawatt photovoltaic farm on 4,410 acres of federal land. Lease and capacity fees for the Desert Sunlight project will total about $4.3 million a year.

The agency is charging different capacity fees for different solar technologies. Photovoltaic power plants, which deploy solar panels like those found on residential rooftops, are assessed $5,256 a megawatt.

Developers of more efficient solar thermal power plant, which uses mirrors to heat liquids to generate steam that drives a turbine, pay $6,570 a megawatt. The same rate is charged for concentrating photovoltaic farms that use mirrors to focus the sun on a highly efficient solar cell.

If either technology uses energy storage systems to produce electricity when the sun doesn’t shine, the fee jumps to $7,884 a megawatt. The fees will be phased in over the first five years of a power plant’s operation.

Some developers and environmentalists argue that such a fee structure penalizes technologies that are more efficient and thus use less land.

“This is an unfortunate way of emphasizing one technology over another,” said Bobby McEnaney, a land program expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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