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Archive for the ‘electric cars’ Category

photo: Todd Woody

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

With the first mass-produced electric cars set to hit American streets next month, there’s been a lot of to-ing and fro-ing in the media about whether consumers will actually buy the vehicles once they’re in showrooms.

But as General Electric made clear this week, some big corporations are certainly in the market for battery-powered rides, and that alone could help spur the market.

GE announced that it would buy 25,000 electric cars between now and 2015, including 12,000 Chevrolet Volts. (Which will help General Motors pay back that taxpayer-financed bailout.)

Now, 25,000 cars might not sound like all that much. But it’s the largest corporate buy of electric vehicles to date. And if GE’s move inspires other multinationals to follow suit and electrify their fleets, the numbers could really start to add up. Just imagine if the Fortune 500 made a similar commitment — 12.5 million electric cars would be on the road in a few years.

(GE chief executive Jeff Immelt just needs to start bragging about how big his electric fleet is at cocktail parties; before you know it, the CEO next door will be putting in an even larger order for EVs.)

As Immelt has made clear on more than one occasion, this is all about business.

“We basically touch every part of the infrastructure,” he said in a video press release. “From the smart grid, to our WattStation, to electrical distribution products, to everywhere in between.

“We’ve always believed clean energy is about commercialization. It’s not a novelty,” Immelt continued. “Broad-based commitments and broad-based strategies are what’s going to make clean energy a reality.”

GE unveiled the WattStation, its electric charging station for the street and garage, this past summer, and in September inked a deal with Better Place to deploy the iPodish charger in the Silicon Valley startup’s electric infrastructure network.

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photo: GE

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

General Electric on Wednesday gave a jump-start to Better Place, the Silicon Valley startup developing an electric car infrastructure in several countries.

Better Place plans to deploy a network of urban charging posts and swapping stations where drivers can exchange depleted company-owned batteries for fresh ones when they need to make trips that exceed their car’s range. GE has agreed to help finance up to 10,000 of those batteries in Better Place’s first two markets: Denmark and Israel. That’s no small matter, given that Better Place faces huge capital outlays for battery purchases.

The global conglomerate will also make its WattStation, a sleek electric car charging post that it unveiled in July in San Francisco, compatible with Better Place’s network.

In addition, GE and Better Place will collaborate on an effort to persuade companies to electrify their vehicle fleets and plug into the electric car charging networks that Better Place plans to build in the San Francisco Bay Area; Ontario, Canada; Australia; and Europe.

It’s not the first time GE has dabbled in the nascent electric car industry. In 2008, the company invested $4 million in Think, the Norwegian electric carmaker.

In yet another deal involving a multinational conglomerate and a California startup, Sharp late Tuesday said it had acquired Recurrent Energy, a San Francisco-based solar developer, for $305 million in cash.

While most people may associate Sharp with televisions and other consumer electronics, the Japanese company is also one of the world’s biggest solar panel makers. Recurrent builds small-scale photovoltaic power plants. It has signed contracts for projects that would generate 330 megawatts, and has another nearly another 1,700 megawatts’ worth of deals in development.

During a conference call on Wednesday, Recurrent’s chief executive, Arno Harris, said Recurrent would retain its name and become a division of Sharp and that he and his team would remain in place.

While the buyout is another sign of the consolidating solar industry, it also indicates that big solar panel makers like Sharp feel pressure from the fast rise of low-cost Chinese manufacturers to diversify their business.

Acquiring Recurrent gives Sharp another source of revenue but it won’t necessarily provide a market for Sharp’s own solar panels. In a telling provision of the acquisition, Harris said Recurrent won’t be compelled to buy Sharp solar panels and can keep its current suppliers. Those include Yingli Green Energy, a Chinese company that captured a third of the California market last year thanks in large part to a big deal with Recurrent.

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In Wednesday’s New York Times, I wrote about two experimental projects in California to store solar energy produced by photovoltaic rooftop arrays:

In the garage of Peter Rive’s San Francisco home is a battery pack. It is not connected to Mr. Rive’s electric Tesla Roadster sports car, but to the power grid.

The California Public Utilities Commission has awarded $1.8 million to Mr. Rive’s company, SolarCity, a residential photovoltaic panel installer, to research the feasibility of storing electricity generated by rooftop solar arrays in batteries.

As rooftop solar systems provide a growing percentage of electricity to California’s grid, regulators and utilities are increasingly concerned about how to balance the intermittent nature of that power with demand.

One possible solution is to store energy generated by solar arrays in batteries and other systems and then feed that electricity to the grid when, say, a cloudy day results in a drop in power production. And when demand peaks, electricity generated from renewable sources could be dispatched from batteries rather than fossil-fuel burning power plants.

“As soon as distributed solar starts providing 5 to 10 percent of demand, its intermittent nature will need to be addressed,” said Mr. Rive, who is SolarCity’s co-founder and chief operating officer.

SolarCity is teaming with Tesla Motors, the Silicon Valley electric car company run by Mr. Rive’s cousin, Elon Musk, and the University of California, Berkeley, to study how to integrate solar arrays and off-the-shelf Tesla lithium-ion battery backs into the grid. SolarCity plans to put such systems in six homes.

“We think in the years ahead this will be the default way that solar is installed,” Mr. Rive said. “Getting the costs down, though, is not going to be an easy task.”

Homeowners could potentially benefit by tapping batteries at hours when electricity rates are high or using them to provide backup power if the grid goes down.

The research has just begun, and at the moment SolarCity is testing the impact of charging and discharging electricity from the Tesla battery pack in Mr. Rive’s garage. His roof sports a three-kilowatt solar array.

“We’re at the point now where we can direct the battery to charge and discharge at specific times by sending a signal over the Internet,” Mr. Rive said.

Included in the $14.6 million awarded for solar energy storage research by the utilities commission was $1.9 million to SunPower for a project that will store in ice and batteries electricity generated by solar arrays at Target stores.

SunPower, a Silicon Valley solar panel manufacturer and power plant developer, will work with Ice Energy, a Colorado company that makes systems that use electricity when rates are low to form ice. When rates are high, air conditioning refrigerant is cooled by the melting ice rather than by an electricity-hogging compressor.

The Ice Bear system and a solar array will be installed at one Target store while battery packs will be used at two other stores in California.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Better Place

In The New York Times on Monday, I wrote about the challenges of developing electric car batteries that will match the range of gasoline-powered vehicles:

Silicon Valley may be an epicenter of the nascent electric car industry, but don’t expect the battery revolution to mimic the computer revolution, one of I.B.M.’s top energy storage scientists advises.

“Forget Moore’s Law — it’s nothing like that,” said Winfried Wilcke, senior manager for I.B.M.’s Battery 500 project, referring to the maxim put forward by Gordon Moore, an Intel founder, that computer processing power doubles roughly every two years.

“Lithium ion, which clearly is the best battery technology today, is flat, completely flat since 2003,” Mr. Wilcke said last week at a gathering in San Francisco attended by executives from I.B.M. and Better Place, a Silicon Valley electric car infrastructure company.

Mr. Wilcke’s team at the Almaden Research Center of I.B.M. in San Jose, Calif., is trying to develop a new battery technology called lithium air that could allow a car to go 500 miles on a single charge. Most electric cars coming onto the market this year have a range of around 100 miles.

Such batteries theoretically could pack 10 times the energy density of the lithium ion batteries now used in electric cars because they use air drawn in from outside the battery as a reactant. That means lithium-air storage devices weigh less than lithium-ion batteries, a factor that also improves the performance of electric cars.

“I always compare it to climbing Mount Everest,” Mr. Wilcke said. “In the last two months, we just left base camp — meaning that we actually made some pretty significant breakthroughs.”

He declined to give details but said that his team had shown that lithium-air batteries could be recharged, something that had not been done before.

“It will take many years, if ever, before it can be useful,” he said. “It’s a high-high-risk project.”

He illustrated the challenge of building a battery with the energy density of gasoline by recounting that it took 47 seconds to put 13.6 gallons of gas in his car when he stopped to fill up on the way to San Francisco. That’s the equivalent of 36,000 kilowatts of electricity. An electric car would need to pump 6,000 kilowatts to charge its battery.

“The dream that we have today to have exactly the same car charge up in minutes and drive off hundreds of miles cannot happen,” Mr. Wilcke said. “Or at least not for 50 years.”

Mr. Wilcke and Lawrence Seeff, head of global alliances for Better Place, dismissed the idea that the fast-charging stations being tested in California and elsewhere were a solution to the battery conundrum.

Depending on the battery, high-voltage stations can recharge a battery to 80 percent capacity in 20 to 30 minutes rather than in the 8 to 10 hours it takes with a more conventional charging station.

Allan Schurr, I.B.M.’s vice president for strategy, energy and utilities, noted that the cost to drivers of plugging in to a rapid charging station might be prohibitive, given the demands that the devices place on the electric grid.

“It’s physically possible to have a fast-charge mechanism and a fast-charge outlet, but can the grid support it?” Mr. Seeff said. “And what do we define by fast-charging? Is it 20 minutes, 10 minutes, 30 minutes? Because if you have two people waiting to fast-charge, you could be waiting an hour.”

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Todd Woody

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

With months to go before the first mass production electric cars hit American streets, the $41,000 question (before rebates and tax incentives) is whether drivers will buy them en masse.

Which is why you should keep your eye on Berkeley, Calif. While I would hardly hold out my hometown as an avatar of mainstream American values, on the environmental front it’s often been in the vanguard of things to come, like curbside recycling.

Take hybrid cars. When I was reporting a story earlier this year on the San Francisco Bay Area as the launch pad for mass-market electric cars, Andrew Tang, an executive with PG&E, told me that the utility was closely watching local sales of the Toyota Prius as a proxy for likely purchases of electric cars. Studying Prius distribution helped PG&E create a heat map of neighborhoods where the electricity demand might spike.

In Berkeley, he said, one out of every five cars sold for the past four years has been a Prius. Made sense to me. Priuses seem as common as Obama bumper stickers and are just part of the visual landscape, like Alice Waters. But it wasn’t until my friend Mike and his son Bryce were visiting from Texas recently that the hybridization of Berkeley really became apparent to me.

We were at REI picking up some gear for a camping trip when Bryce remarked that he had counted eight Priuses in the store’s rather small parking lot. On the 2.8-mile drive home we decided to see how many Priuses we could spot along the road into the Berkeley Hills.

We counted 34, including four on my block.

A few weeks later I played the Prius game on the way down the hill to the Berkeley Bowl to pick up some groceries. I counted 25 Priuses, two Honda Insight hybrids, an old Toyota RAV4 electric and one gunmetal gray Tesla Roadster.

So will Toyota’s hegemony stand once Nissan’s battery-powered Leaf blows into town? No doubt, many will trade in their Prius to go electric. The Leaf sports a distinctive look that, like the Prius, screams green to your neighbors. (And keeping up with the Joneses is just a part of Berkeley’s cultural fabric.)

The Chevrolet Volt may be a harder sell, given it is an electric hybrid and boasts a muscular all-American look that you don’t see too often on the streets here.

But every Prius owner won’t have to switch to electric in order to have an impact. Seeing a Leaf or Volt in the neighbor’s driveway or in the REI parking lot will make an electric car less a curiosity and more just another automotive option when trading in that ’95 Volvo station wagon.

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photo: Todd Woody

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

Judging by the comments on my previous post comparing the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid and Nissan Leaf electric car, more than a few readers are suffering sticker shock at the price of greening their rides.

Now there’s another option for those wanting to take the occasional trip down the electric highway without forking over $41,000 for a Volt or $32,780 for a Leaf (before a $7,500 federal tax incentive).

This week, rental car giant Enterprise Holdings announced it had placed an order for 500 Leafs that will be available in early 2011 at Enterprise Rent-a-Car locations in Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz.; Knoxville and Nashville, Tenn.; San Diego; Los Angeles; Portland, Ore.; and Seattle. (Not coincidentally, those cities are also where Nissan will first roll out the Leaf later this year and where a Department of Energy-funded network of charging stations will be built.)

“There is a lot of conversation and buzz about the electric car and we would like to offer it to our customer base as it comes commercially and economically viable,” Lee Broughton, Enterprise Holdings’ director of sustainability, told me.

Enterprise Holdings also owns Alamo and National Car Rental, but decided to place the Leafs with Enterprise Rent-a-Car as its locations are concentrated in neighborhoods.

“We’re uniquely placed to offer exposure of the electric vehicle to customers,” says Broughton. “When you think about the daily urban commuter, electric cars are in the sweet spot.”

He says Enterprise, which currently offers nearly 7,000 hybrid cars for rent, is also talking to other electric carmakers.

The company has not set a price for renting a Leaf, but Broughton noted that Enterprise’s hybrid fleet commands a slight premium.

“There is a sticker price difference for a vehicle of a similar size simply because of the technology and the infrastructure to support it,” he notes of the Leaf.

Enterprise will qualify for the $7,500 federal tax incentive for each Leaf as well as any available local and state rebates.

Adding cars like the Leaf and the Volt to rental fleets could be an effective way to expose people to electric cars and expand the market. They would also seem ideal for urban car-sharing services like Zipcar, which offer hipsters cool rides like the Mini Cooper and the Prius.

But when I talked to top executives at Zipcar and its competitors earlier this year, I found their enthusiasm tempered by the costs of the first mass-market electric cars and plug-in hybrids and worries about whether a sufficient number of charging stations will be available for their customers.

That could well change over the next year as electric cars begin to proliferate and curious consumers decide the best way to go electric is to do a time-share.

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

Are you a Volt kind of gal or a Leaf guy?

With General Motors and Nissan revving up to put the first mass-produced electric cars in showrooms in a few months, the shape of the nascent market is starting to emerge as the engineers complete their work and the marketers begin theirs.

The cars, the Chevrolet Volt and the Nissan Leaf, take two different technological roads to sustainable transportation, and their differing appeal was on display Monday when I spent the afternoon at the Plug-In 2010 conference in San Jose. (Even the cars’ names telegraph their shades of green.)

First I took a test drive of a metallic blue Leaf parked outside the Hotel Valencia in San Jose’s upscale Santana Row shopping district. Like the Toyota Prius, the five-seater Leaf has a distinctive shape that lets your neighbors know you’ve gone green — that and the logo emblazoned on the side that screams “zero emission” in big letters.

Nissan clearly is targeting the Prius set. Inside, the Leaf features a clean minimalist interior with just enough high-tech touches to let you know you that this is not your grandma’s Sentra. Move the big and round blue LED-illuminated knob in the center console to the left and down and the Leaf is in gear. (Press the button on the top of the knob to put the Leaf in park.)

Like every other electric vehicle I’ve driven, the Leaf accelerates quickly as power is instantaneously transferred to the wheels, albeit not as silently as other EVs. Nissan has implanted speakers under the wheel wells that broadcast a low sound somewhat like a starship going into warp to warn unsuspecting pedestrians that a car is coming.

Touch a button on the big dashboard screen and the Leaf tells you how many miles you can travel on the battery’s remaining charge and displays a map showing just how far you can go in any direction. Another button displays the location of charging stations — which are very few and far between in San Jose at the moment.

Other than the iPhone-like features, the Leaf drives and handle like any other compact car. Which is the point, after all, for automakers seeking to make electric cars as common as the Honda Civic.

Still, Nissan is clearly targeting the enviro crowd that made the Prius a hit and broke down barriers for electric cars.

“Basically everything you see here is made out of recycled water bottles, right down to the floor mats,” the Nissan representative riding shotgun points out about the interior.

If that doesn’t provide enough green cred at the neighborhood cocktail party, there’s the optional solar panel that does double duty as a spoiler. (“Ninety-nine percent bragging rights, one percent function,” concedes the Nissan rep.)

But what about the Volt?

That same evening, I attended a dinner where GM executives at long last revealed the sticker price of the Volt: $41,000, versus $32,780 for the Leaf, before a $7,500 federal tax credit.

Although GM calls the Volt an “extended range electric vehicle,” it is in fact a serial hybrid that will travel 40 emission-free miles on a charge from its lithium ion battery pack. When the battery runs down, a small gasoline engine kicks in to power a generator that delivers electricity to the car’s motor. That lets the Volt go 340 miles, dispelling range anxiety. (Nissan says the Leaf can travel up to 100 miles on a charge.)

“This car is designed for the majority of Americans,” Joel Ewanick, GM’s vice president for North America marketing, said at the dinner. “This is a car that the average person can drive on a daily basis. It’s not something that’s a unique little niche vehicle.”

The Volt has an aggressive muscular stance and an interior choc-a-block with buttons and ports (plus a 32-gig hard drive for your music collection) that should appeal to the Camaro crowd as well as greenies. (It’s also fun to drive, as I found out when I took the Volt for a spin a couple of months ago.)

So, which to choose?

The reality is that both types of cars are needed to accelerate the transition away from gasoline-powered vehicles, and both vehicles present conundrums to potential buyers.

As I tooled around in the Leaf, I realized that if I had driven the car down to San Jose from Berkeley, I wouldn’t have enough juice to make a return trip. On the other hand, if I had taken the Volt, I would have been burning carbon for more than half the trip.

Clearly, the electric-car market will need both the Volt and the Leaf in the coming years.

And a lot of fast-charging stations.

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photo: Todd Woody

In The New York Times on Tuesday, I write that General Motors has finally unveiled the retail price for the Chevrolet Volt plug-in electric hybrid:

General Motors began taking orders for the long-awaited Chevrolet Volt on Tuesday, pricing the plug-in hybrid car at $41,000.

A federal tax credit can reduce the net cost of the Volt to $33,500, and a 36-month lease will be available for $350 a month with $2,500 due at the signing.

Production of the Volt will begin in September, and the car will initially be sold in California, New York, Michigan, Connecticut, Texas, New Jersey and the nation’s capital, G.M. said.

The car’s suggested starting price is $8,220 higher than that of the all-electric Nissan Leaf, which will also go on sale this year.

With the Volt ready for the assembly line, executives began a full-court press to persuade consumers that the car’s cutting-edge technology and features are worth a BMW price tag.

“It’s a real car — it just happens to be electric,” Joel Ewanick, G.M.’s vice president for North America marketing, said at a dinner Monday night at the Plug-In 2010 conference in San Jose, Calif. “This car is designed for the majority of Americans. This is a car that the average person can drive on a daily basis. It’s not something that’s a unique little niche vehicle.”

“The marketing challenge is communicating how different this is than what they’re used to,” he added.

The Volt’s lithium-ion battery pack gives the car an emissions-free range of 40 miles. When the battery is depleted, a small gasoline engine kicks in to run a generator that supplies electricity to the motor, extending the Volt’s range by 300 miles.

Mr. Ewanick said that a Volt driven 15,000 miles a year would use 550 fewer gallons of gasoline than a comparable gas-only car.

G.M. executives, however, insist on calling the Volt an “extended range electric vehicle,” underscoring the balancing act between promoting its green credibility and its utility as competitors roll out all-electric cars.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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photo: Nissan

This post first appeared on Grist.

With the first mass-market electric cars set to hit California roads later this year, the state’s utilities have been working to ensure that early adopters – who tend to be clustered in places like Berkeley and Santa Monica – don’t overload neighborhood transformers and trigger local blackouts.

One way to do that is to encourage drivers not to plug in all at the same time, say when they arrive home from work and also crank up the air conditioning, is to set variable electricity rates that reward those who wait to charge until demand falls late at night or the wee hours of the morning.

What is unknown is whether such rates will actually change anyone’s behavior.

We’re about to find out. On Thursday, the California Public Utilities Commission approved a pilot project proposed by San Diego Gas & Electric to set variable rates for electric car charging.

“This information is critically important as we contemplate a future with widespread electric vehicle usage, given the additional electricity demand these vehicles create and the associated impacts on the grid,” Michael Peevey, the utilities commission president, said in a statement.

The project, which kicks off in January, will accompany the roll out of 1,000 Nissan Leaf electric cars in the San Diego area and the installation of home charging stations for each driver. Some 1,500 public charging stations will also be installed as well as 50 fast chargers that allow the cars’ batteries to be topped off in a matter of minutes rather than hours.

The San Diego effort is part of program backed by the United States Department of Energy called the EV Project that will put 5,700 Leafs and 2,600 Chevrolet Volts in garages in five states along with 14,650 charging stations and 310 fast chargers.

Under the plan greenlighted by California regulators on Thursday, San Diego Gas & Electric will bill Nissan Leaf drivers a range of rates, from a low of 7 cents a kilowatt/hour for summer “super off peak” charging to a high of 38 cents a kilowatt/hour during peak summer demand.

So will someone who has forked over $109,000 for a Tesla Roadster care about saving 31 cents a kilowatt hour? Probably not. What about the middle-of-the-road buyer of a $20,000 (after tax incentives) Nissan Leaf?

Maybe. But survey data that a California utility executive recently shared with me was not encouraging. Polling of likely electric car buyers showed that they were not particularly charged up about the prospect of saving money by delaying their EV gratification.

Another solution is smart charging. Drivers plug in when they get home but the charger communicates with the power grid to determine the optimal time to flip the switch.

That requires a smart grid and the California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday also approved a comprehensive plan to digitalize the state’s power system.

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photo: Think

This post first appeared on Grist.

“Honey, could you run down to the store and pick up some milk, tofu and one of those new Think City electric cars?”

That could be a conversation you’ll be hearing soon in Switzerland (in French, German Italian and Romansh, of course) now that Norwegian electric automaker Think has struck a deal with Swiss retailer Migros to market the City.

Sort of a cooperatively owned Costco, Migros is Switzerland’s largest supermarket chain and operates more than 600 stores across the country. In a deal announced Wednesday, Migros will sell the battery-powered Think urban runabout through a new division called M-Way.

“We have the key central retail locations all over Switzerland and beyond, now we want to use these bases to spread the news and sales of electric vehicles such as the Think City,” Herbert Bolliger, President of the Federation of Migros Cooperatives, said in a statement.

The announcement caught my attention because it’s a reminder that, one, not all green tech innovation is destined to happen here in California, and two, business model innovation will be just as important as technology itself in transforming electric cars from a niche to a knockout.

From its reincarnation a few years ago under the leadership of then-chief executive Jan Olaf-Willums, Think sought not to sell so much a car as mobility. Internet-enabled and connected to your mobile phone and the power grid, the plastic-bodied City was designed to plug into the transportation and electric power networks rather than be just another isolated hunk of metal rolling down the road.

You might buy the City but lease it’s battery or drive one when needed through a car-sharing service like Zipcar. Or from your neighborhood grocery store.

James Andrews, a Think spokesman, told me that sales of the City will begin this summer at Migros supermarkets. M-Way will initially set up retail outlets at Migros stores in urban areas.

It’s a smart strategy to expose consumers to electric cars. After all, how often do you casually stroll through car dealerships, which, in the United States at least, tend to be isolated in “auto rows” off the beaten path.

Now how often do you pop down to Whole Foods or Safeway for a gallon of milk? You’re probably likely to check out the City or another electric car if you pass it on the way to the wine aisle. Maybe you’ll even take one for a test drive around the block.

Migros’ M-Way already has sold a fleet of 60 Citys to Alpmobil, an eco-tourism company that will provide them for the use of its guests at a resort in the Swiss Alps.

Back in the 1990s, Think leased a previous version of the City to San Francisco Bay Area residents as part of a pilot project that let them plug the cars in to charge at train stations. Among the Think early adopters was a guy named Sergey Brin.

San Francisco is likely to be among the first U.S. cities to receive shipments of the latest City when Think begins selling the car in America later this year. Who knows, you might even be able to buy one at the farmer’s market one day.

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