New impetus for community energy

The Financial Times reports that the falling cost of renewables, advances in battery storage and the prospect of selling electricity locally are giving new impetus to community energy projects.

Community energy projects, set up to generate renewable energy, are reinvesting the proceeds from the sale of electricity into the locality. Sylvia Pfeifer describes them as part of a wider trend towards “distributed energy” as the industry moves away from the traditional model of large power stations that send electricity through central transmission networks, to one that is dominated by smaller-scale, often renewable, plants.

Residents form a co-operative society, which owns the local scheme and raises money through share and bond offers to develop a project; any profits are fed back into local causes

It is, increasingly, an investment proposition for socially conscious investors

“Everyone realises our energy is changing,” said Emma Bridge, chief executive at Community Energy England, the organisation that represents the sector. “The public want more local involvement and to take practical action on climate change.”

Several policy changes and cuts to government subsidies and tax incentives which helped to promote investment in small-scale renewable projects from 2010 led to a steep drop in new schemes. However, the falling cost of renewables, advances in battery storage and the prospect of selling electricity locally are giving new impetus to community energy projects.

Last year research by Community Energy England identified 222 organisations in England, Wales and Northern Ireland with active local schemes operating wind, solar or hydro. They had raised £190m of investment. Together with the Scottish sector, community energy projects have 188MW of generation capacity installed — enough to power about 130,000 homes.

Accessing funding requires a degree of knowledge. Mongoose Energy helps to develop and finance schemes. Its projects are funded through a combination of bank loans, funding from social capital providers and community fundraisers. Mark Kenber, Mongoose chief executive, said he believed investor appetite was growing. “More and more people are now investing as they see renewables such as wind and solar as tried and tested technologies and the returns on offer are predictable,” he added. “People are looking at it as a reasonably low-risk return.” Consumers take charge

The sector may be small but supporters said it was part of a future in which consumers increasingly take charge of their energy usage. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said it had made £100m of funding available for small scale renewables between 2016 and 2019. It is currently “considering options” for its approach beyond next year.

Believed to be the first major funding by a local authority in community-owned energy infra

Westmill Solar Cooperative raised more than £20 million for 5 wind turbines and a ground-mounted solar array. Members receive an average of 8% return on their investment. The balance of funding required was raised by a debt bond arranged with the Lancashire County Council Pension Fund, in what was believed to be the first major funding by a local authority in community-owned energy infrastructure.

As yet, any electricity produced locally by a community energy project is not bought directly by local residents for their own usage. Richard Benwell, a director of Westmill, the UK’s first community-owned solar farm, says,

“The really exciting thing will be when schemes can sell locally produced energy to members of the co-operative society that owns a community energy project. With lower distribution costs real savings can be made”.

 

 

 

 

 

Rebuild the local economy: prioritise labour-intensive sectors, difficult to automate, impossible to relocate abroad

Colin Hines, co-founder of LWM and convenor of the UK Green New Deal Group, comments on the Guardian’s recent editorial on productivity and robots which ‘repeated the cliché that automation does cost jobs, but more are created’.

He says that the problem with this is that the new jobs are frequently in different places from where they are lost and require very different skills, hence exacerbating the problems for the “left behind”.

Also unmentioned was that just as automation is starting to really bite, the world faces a strong possibility of another serious credit-induced economic downturn, from China to the UK and a perfect storm of domestic unemployment soaring and export markets falling, as happened after the 2008 economic slump.

The answer to these problems has to be a shift of emphasis to rebuilding the local economy by prioritising labour-intensive sectors that are difficult to automate and impossible to relocate abroad.

Two sectors are key:

  • face-to-face caring from medicine, education and elderly care
  • carbon-reducing national infrastructural renewal.

This should range from making the UK’s 30m buildings energy efficient, constructing new low-carbon dwellings and rebuilding local public transport links.

Funding could come from fairer taxes, local authority bonds in which all could invest, green ISAs and a massive new green infrastructure QE programme.

This approach should become central to all political parties, set out in their next election manifestos because “jobs in absolutely every constituency” is the crucial vote-winning mantra.

 

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Complexity or resilience?

In the Times, Ed Conway (right), economics editor of Sky News, describes problems arising from the complexity of ‘the hallmark of 21st-century life’ and the International Alliance for Localization records examples of new modes of development and progress.

Conway writes about the vast supply chains, financial instruments and legal structures ‘sitting beneath every industry’:

  • Where once a company made its products in one country, these days most sophisticated goods are the product of many hundreds of contractors from around the world, eventually assembled into one unit and quickly shipped to your door.
  • Where once a bank manager would know to whom he lent money, these days debts can be packaged and repackaged so many times that the link between borrower and lender is effectively lost.
  • Financial globalisation — the ability to move money seamlessly from country to country leaves countries even more vulnerable to banking crises.
  • And in much the same way as companies outsource non-core production and services, the public sector delegates responsibilities to private operators.
  • By replacing tightly knit relationships with impersonal complex structures we lost something — consider the 2008 financial crisis,

The complexity of the regulatory system played a part in the Grenfell Tower disaster tragedy. Not only were regulations extensive yet oddly vague — allowing builders to use various loopholes — they were not even checked by government officials. These days contractors in England can instead hire “approved inspectors”, private outfits which provide a bit of advice and tick the appropriate boxes.

Globalisation, once a means of boosting everyone’s income, has instead evolved into an excellent vehicle to help the rich get richer.

The International Alliance for Localization sees that the building of more resilient economies will require a rethinking of the financial system, and its Planet Local series has been turning the spotlight on some inspiring examples of ethical banking:

* In Maine, USA, a local resident with money to invest  is providing nearby small farmers with loans whose interest is paid exclusively in the form of farm products.

* Brazil’s Banco Palmas, governed and managed by residents of the impoverished Palmeiras neighborhood in the city of Fortaleza, has issued a local currency, dramatically shifted spending patterns to keep money circulating locally, and extended basic financial services to people shut out of the mainstream banking system.

* In Croatia, the democratically-owned Ebanka functions as a non-profit bank, in stark contrast to most financial institutions worldwide. Their loans are given without interest, and every member has an equal voice when it comes to voting on big decisions, regardless of the value of their deposit.?

Visit IAL’s growing library of localization initiatives

 

LWM is a member of IAL, a cross-cultural network of thinkers, activists and NGOs from 58 different countries.

 

 

 

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Economic Prospects for 2017: Andrew Simms – New Economics Foundation

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As John Nightingale who sent the link says, this ‘reads well’: 

Each year the Financial Times conducts a survey of leading economists on the UK’s upcoming prospects. The New Weather Institute is part of that survey and predicts a bumpy ride. A lot of the FT material sits behind a paywall, so for interest here are the answers we gave to their questions (which are themselves interesting in terms of locating mainstream concerns) on issues ranging from economic growth, to Brexit, monetary and fiscal policy, inflation, immigration and, unavoidably, Donald Trump.

Highlights (full text on WM New Economics Group website):

It is time to stop measuring the health of the economy using orthodox economic growth measured by fluctuations in GDP as the primary indicator. By mistaking quantity for quality of economic activity, worse than telling us nothing it can be actively misleading. It tells us nothing about the quality of employment, the intelligence of infrastructure, the economy’s resilience, the environment’s health, or the life satisfaction of the population. As the United Nations Development Programme pointed out (as far back as 1996), you may have growth, but it might be variously jobless, voiceless (denying rights), ruthless (associated with high inequality), rootless (culturally dislocating in the way that fed Brexit, for example) or futureless (as now, based on unsustainable resource use) . . .

. . . tax breaks, subsidies and the way investment portfolios get managed means that money flows cheaply in fossil fuel infrastructure and operations. At the same time, necessary and successful emergent sectors like solar and other renewables can still struggle for affordable, patient capital. The privatisation and weakening of the mission of the Green Investment Bank is deeply concerning in this regard . . . prevalent economic uncertainties seem to be having the effect of putting everyone, the MPC included, on ‘watch’, and unlikely to do anything radically different in the ‘phony war’ period of approaching Brexit negotiations . . .

If anything, far from being downgraded by the Brexit debate, the economic importance of immigration to key UK sectors has been made more acutely obvious, ranging from higher education, to food, retail and a range of other service industries. Importantly, many of the drivers of population movement from inequality to conflict and environmental degradation show no sign of lessening and, if anything, growing worse.  The tone and promise of government policy seems mostly to affect the degree of xenophobia experienced by immigrants rather than significantly changing their numbers. With all these things in mind, I doubt trends in immigration will change much in 2017 and that this will buoy-up a UK economy facing a wide range of threats . . .

There is no reason in principle why QE cannot be used in a more intelligent and focused way. The UK is weighed-down with an aging, creaking, high-carbon infrastructure. The case for public investment as necessary to rebuild the foundations for a modern, clean and efficient economy to underpin our quality of life is overwhelming. The cost of money for conventional borrowing is cheap. And the decision by the Bank of England to expand its quantitative easing (QE) programme from £375 billion to £445 billion in the wake of Brexit, demonstrates that public money creation is also possible when the situation demands it. Up to date, QE has benefited the banks, and the holders of certain assets, with broader economic benefits being questionable. But, as Mark Carney has previously indicated, there is no reason in principle why it cannot be used in a more intelligent and focused way to aid the productive, low carbon economy. I and others have consistently argued that far more good could be done if the same basic mechanism was used, for example, to capitalise a much larger and more ambitious green investment bank via bond purchases. The work subsequently undertaken such as large scale energy efficiency retrofitting of the UK housing stock and the roll out of renewable energy would generate good quality local employment and better prepare Britain for the future. There is no sign yet that the government intend to seize this opportunity and rather too many signs that any borrowing that is undertaken will not be put to as good use . . .

Combined with the sentiments unleashed by Brexit, and the UK government’s active new embrace of industrial strategy, it is possible that the economic pendulum may swing back some degrees from globalisation toward localisation. Done in a purely autarchic way this might be negative. Done with respect to international cooperation and obligations, and to help build a more environmentally sustainable economy, it could snatch success from the jaws of chaotic self-destruction.

http://network.neweconomyorganisers.org/conversations/11898 Did you know… Adding your events to the NEON calendar will automatically promote them to our 1414 membersadd your events here.

 

 

 

Is a quiet political revolution getting under way?

As the old order with its class and gender hierarchies gave way, George Monbiot points out that the void filled with junk could have been occupied by a better society, built on mutual support and connectedness, without the stifling stratification of the old order.

The feast to which we were invited is only for the few’

foe logoInstead, as the developed world – saturated with advertising, the handmaiden of market fundamentalism – became reliant on rising consumption to avert economic collapse, he notes that Friends of the Earth has begun to explore how we might reconnect with each other and with the natural world. New models for urban living are based on sharing rather than competitive consumption:

  • the sharing of cars and appliances and tools,
  • of money (through credit unions and micro-finance) and power.
  • community-led decision-making, over transport, planning and, perhaps, rent levels, minimum and maximum wages,
  • municipal budgets and taxation.

Such initiatives, facilitated by the state can bring people together with a sense of shared purpose, ownership and mutual support that centralised decision-making can never provide. But in some areas, non-party political movements are achieving this without that elusive government facilitation

Independents

Peter Macfadyen, Kate Bielby and Mel Usher of Independents for Frome
Peter Macfadyen, Kate Bielby and Mel Usher of Independents for Frome

Today, a neighbour gave the writer a cutting about Frome’s declaration of independence.

This Somerset market town has developed “flatpack democracy”, taking political power at a local level and enabling people to have a greater say in the decisions that affect their lives.”

Independents for Frome took all 17 seats on Frome’s town council, with vote-shares as high as 70%, and support from people who cast their other votes for the main political parties.  

Localism in action

Though local Conservatives were convinced that austerity had to apply even at the most local level, the council has borrowed around £750,000 to invest in buildings and land:

  • green spaces have been spruced up
  • game-changing help has been given to the local credit union
  • he council is involved in a new renewable energy cooperative,
  • and has put money into the setting up of a new “share shop”

In Devon the Buckfastleigh Independents group have followed a similar path. the town’s new deputy mayor, Pam Barrett says the town is ”a working-class town that’s been suffering from a real loss of services.” After fighting – successfully – to keep open a library and swimming pool, she and other residents stood for town council seats that had not been contested for “20 or more years”. One of the catalysts, she says, was a box of 10 copies of the Flatpack Democracy booklet, which was brought in by one of her colleagues. On 7 May, they also took nine of 12 seats, and started running the show.

Flatpack Democracy ideas are being shared with other groups in Devon and Somerset and though people in Alderley Edge, Cheshire were not aware of developments in the West Country, their thinking is much the same: as one newly elected councillor, Mike Dudley-Jones, said: “our basic mantra is that there is no place for mainstream party politics at this level”.

On election day, Conservatives lost all nine of the parish council’s seats to this group – Alderley Edge First – which also took the village’s one seat on Cheshire East council.

Community energy solutions: Plymouth

In 2012 Plymouth’s co-operative city council established a Low Carbon City Team, which helped to identify the city’s potential for community energy solutions and forge partnerships. The council funded pre-development, initial community engagement and business plan development.

plymouth bencom header

In 2013 it joined forces with local residents to form Plymouth Energy Community (PEC) which then set up a second Industrial & Provident community benefit society (Bencom), PEC Renewables, to fund and manage renewable energy installations. PEC has 850 members, 95% of whom are local residents, and the number is rising, with more joining as the current share offer progresses.

Marie-Claire Kidd reports that Plymouth’s energy future is changing. PEC Renewables launched its first share offer in February 2014. It closed after seven weeks, oversubscribed at £602,000, with 144 investor members, around half of them local. This enabled it to install free solar photovoltaics on 18 schools and three community buildings between May and November 2014.

pec investors

The installations, which collectively represent 0.78 megawatts, are now generating half-price electricity for their community building hosts. Surplus electricity is sold to the grid. The bencom also receives income in the form of a government subsidy, via the Feed-in Tariff.

PEC Renewables launched its second community share offer this February, this time with a £950,000 target. It will fund more free solar photovoltaics, and bring the bencom’s community fund to more than £1.2m. It is forecasting a return of up to 6% for members, which rises to 10.5% including tax relief. The offer, which closes on 5 May, has already raised £510,000.

midland house council offices plymouth

Plymouth’s largest solar roof will be installed on Plymouth Life Centre, a diving centre and one of the busiest leisure centres in the country, and there will be solar panels on four more schools, bringing the total to 1.3MW. (Above: panels on Midland House, a Plymouth council office)

Plymouth has 11,500 households in fuel poverty – 10% of its population – and an energy-inefficient housing stock. The city council has produced a plan to reduce emissions from the council estate by 20% by 2015 and reduce citywide emissions by 30% by 2020.

One of its main aims is to help local people to understand their energy options, so it is promoting grant schemes for free cavity and loft insulation and subsidised external wall insulation, offering savings of around £260 per household per year. It has also provided energy tariff advice for over 600 households, offering average savings of £180 per year.

PEC Renewables’ community fund is being used to tackle the challenges of rising energy costs, fuel poverty and climate change. Projects include PEC’s fuel debt advice service, which has helped local residents clear £55,000 of energy bill arrears in the last 10 months, and its energy team, which trains volunteers to provide free home energy advice to at-risk households.

 

To learn about Plymouth’s plans for the future, read Ms Kidd’s article.

Community energy: co-operative, citizen-centred, decentralised

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Although a couple of weeks ago the government agreed to ban all fracking in protected areas, they are now reported as saying this may ‘unduly constrain the industry’ and fracking will be allowed to take place under National Parks and other protected areas if the wells start outside their boundaries. The passing of the government’s bill was welcomed by Ken Cronin, the chief executive of trade body, UK Onshore Oil and Gas. MP Caroline Lucas, on the other hand, said:What a mockery this is making of legitimate public concerns on fracking, and indeed of the democratic process.”

On 27th January, the government’s Community Energy Strategy report praised the way “communities are coming together to take more control of the energy they use”.

balcombe residents

There are a growing number of community energy organisations in the UK, giving communities more control over production and provision and opportunities to alleviate fuel poverty and increase local employment.

Co-operatives UK, Community Energy England, The Co-operative Energy, Social Enterprise UK, 10:10 and Regen SW have united to call for fair treatment for energy co-ops: a sensible approach to share capital and an optional asset lock for co-ops. They have produced a briefing setting out the main actions required to get community energy back on track. Click here to read the briefing in full.

repower balcombe header

REPOWERBalcombe is the latest initiative: a pro-community and pro-renewables co-operative social enterprise run for the good of the local community. Recognising that Cuadrilla’s drilling back in 2013 divided opinion in the community, they aspire to move on and unite around something positive – clean energy.

In 2015 they aim to raise funds for around 300kw of solar PV, the equivalent of 10% of Balcombe’s current electricity usage – or enough to power 60 of the village’s 760 homes. REPOWERBalcombe will sell investment in the form of shares to the community.

grange farm balcombe solar69 panels were installed on Grange Farm at the end of January

Their first site to sign up was the third-generation family-run Grange Farm on Crawley Down, who will host 18kW of solar panels on their cowshed in exchange for 33% discounted energy for the next 25 years. Local co-op members provided £27,300 for these panels. They are now raising funds to install solar panels on the rooftops of three schools.

As the briefing says:

“The UK needs to move from an economy based on fossil fuels, towards one based on renewable energy; from a market dominated by a handful of suppliers, to one where thousands of communities meet their energy needs locally.

“We need an approach to ownership and innovation that is more co-operative, citizen-centred and decentralised. One that enables people to work together to generate, distribute and supply their own sustainable energy. One that taps the emergence of new crowdfunding mechanisms that have the ability to leverage large sums of money into clean energy investment, and at the same time bolster energy-democracy and the social economy.”

Models for doing this already exist across Europe, where co-operatives and social enterprises deliver clean, low-carbon energy, offer local employment opportunities, community development funds and fuel poverty alleviation.

Useful links:

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/shale-gas

http://www.thenews.coop/93323/news/co-operatives/getting-the-uks-community-energy-sector-back-on-track/

http://www.repowerbalcombe.com/

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-sussex-31027128

http://www.energyshare.com/pages/8304/

Human-scale, decentralised technologies

small is beautiful latest edition coverIn Lean Logic, the late David Fleming recalls that in in 1995, the Times Literary Supplement placed a book by E.F. Schumacher, the chief economic advisor to the UK Coal Board for two post war decades, among the 100 most influential books published since World War II. Small Is Beautiful: a study of economics as if people mattered has been translated into many languages.

This internationally influential economic thinker, statistician and economist, who advocated human-scale, decentralised and appropriate technologies, would have heartily agreed with Karen Leach’s observation that the global drive for the mega and mega-complex solution is part of the centralisation drive – where decision-makers can’t see the collective potential of small scale technology, now often called ‘appropriate technology’ (AT).

Fleming records that Schumacher deplored the “countless ‘experts’ who cannot conceive the possibility of any industrial production unless all the paraphernalia of the Western way of life are provided in advance. The ‘basis of everything’, they say, is of course electricity, steel, cement, near-perfect organisation, sophisticated accountancy. . . In blind pursuit of [a] highly questionable utopia, these ‘experts’ tend to neglect everything that is realistically possible“.

 Locally designed using local materials

AT is designed to fit the circumstances of the people who are to use it; people who need a solution which is cheap to build, small-scale, made from local materials, easy to operate, simple to maintain and energy-efficient is often. It does not start a sequence of pollution, with clean-up commitments, repairs and costs extending into the future. We suggest example:

  • micro-hydro turbines, long-lasting and low-maintenance provide enough power for a number of houses or a small community. The nearest example is probably the Beeston Weir project in the East Midlands. Practical Action can offer far cheaper turbines than commercial products in this country;
  • off-grid living can include solar which generates electricity for immediate use, with no grid connection; solar panels convert sunlight to energy which charges the battery built into lights, computers and refrigerators;
  • there are several reed beds in the region used for the water treatment of a single house or a small neighbourhood – water is cleaned by micro-organisms living on the root system; probably the nearest small-scale example is at Ryton Organic Garden near Coventry.
  • straw-bale construction, probably the nearest regional example is the next door neighbour of Dragon Orchard in Herefordshire;
  • see also the simple-to-build, cost-effective low environmental impact office in Moseley.

LWM’s Mission statement

Localise West Midlands is a not-for-profit organisation which exists to promote the environmental, social and economic benefits of:

  • Local trading, using local businesses, materials and supply chains
  • Linking local needs to local resources
  • Development of community and local capacity
  • Decentralisation of appropriate democratic and economic power
  • Provision of services tailored to meet local needs.

This localisation approach makes economic development and government systems more sensitive to local autonomy, culture, wellbeing and the responsible use of finite resources, and is growing in popularity with people and organisations all over the world.

For more information about some of these technologies, contact the Renewable Energy Centre in Kenilworth. See also Localise West Midlands Scoping Study: Decentralised Energy for Birmingham (pdf)

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Globalisation – the open trading system – is fragmenting

Philip Stephens, an associate editor, in the Financial Times: Globalisation – the open trading system – is fragmenting; it needs an enforcer – a hegemon, a concert of powers or global governance arrangements”.

Evidence: the collapse of the Doha, the demise of global free-trade agreements, and the emergence of regional coalitions and deals. The emerging economies are building south-south relationships and the Brics nations are setting up their own financial institutions.

Colin Hines, co-founder of LWM goes further – and deeper. He advocates the rebuilding and rediversifying of economies by limiting the entry of finance, goods and people from other countries, ensuring local provision of goods, finance and services and weaning themselves off export dependence. Depending on the context, ‘local’ goods would come from the nearest source, the region, the nation state or even a regional grouping of nation states – eg oranges from EU/Spain.

Domestic businesses and funding sources would then meet the needs of the majority in society in all countries. The prospect of such increasing economic security for the majority could gain widespread political support ranging from those on the left, the centre and the greens through to small ‘c’ conservatives.

In 2008, just before the economic collapse, as GND convenor, he presented a mechanism which would have enabled the Green New Deal to prosper. ‘Green Quantitative Easing’ would have made every building in the country energy efficient, and built hundreds of thousands of new, affordable and energy-efficient homes. A massive boost would have been given to economic activity, providing jobs on a living wage in every community in the UK, whilst reducing its environmental impact.

Later this month he will be speaking in Italy at a conference of left economists to float the progressive protectionism agenda and criticise the left, centre and greens for their support of open borders, leaving the extreme right in an ever more powerful position.

Three vital advantages of municipal utilities

bob massie president new economics instituteBob Massie of America’s New Economics Institute sent news today that voters in Boulder, Colorado, have ended their relationship with Xcel Energy, a utility with $10.7 billion in revenues, clearing the way for the city to form its own municipal utility that would lower rates and make greater use of renewable energy.

The city’s ‘multiple pleas’ for more clean wind and solar power had been turned down by Xcel which then financed a new coal power plant.

boulder cycle demo

During a vigorous campaign that attracted national attention, corporate executives and their allies mounted a well-funded operation, arguing that the city had neither the money nor the expertise to manage such a complex enterprise.

boulder graphicAdvocates for the municipal utility, including the New Era Colorado Foundation, fought back with a successful crowd-funding campaign, attracting public attention with imaginative activities.

There are 1000 municipal utilities in the United States, serving 50 million customers. Most  are owned by cities, and controlled by panels of local citizens. Some are cooperatives owned by their members.

boulder john farrellJohn Farrell, who directs the Energy Self-Reliant States and Communities program at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, points out that if the city moves ahead, it would capture nearly $100 million currently spent on electricity imports and create up to $350 million in local economic development by dramatically increasing local clean energy production.

Proponents of change have argued that public control creates three vital benefits:

  • First, decisions are made not by distant corporate managers whose first priority is to generate returns for absentee shareholders or to pay enormous salaries for executives, but by managers who are accountable to the community.
  • Second, because of this, municipal utilities can focus on important local goals, such as investing in renewable energy, efficiency, and other factors that increase community resilience.
  • And finally, the rates of municipal utilities are traditionally lower than their counterparts, and they channel any financial surplus — also known as profit — back into the community.

 boulder poster

Massie comments: “The entire model of a corporate utility operating a centralized grid is facing steady erosion. Universities and cities across the country are expressing their desire to move away from both hiring — or even owning stocks — in companies that remain committed to fossil fuels. In addition, every family who installs solar on their roof not only slashes their need for energy from a utility, but also cuts the revenue for those same firms.”

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