The Innovation Prisoner’s Dilemma

I find windmills beautiful but many people disagree, even in environmentally conscious Germany.

Bloomberg:…it’s getting harder to get permission to erect the turbine towers. Local regulations are getting stricter. Bavaria decided back in 2014 that the distance between a wind turbine and the nearest housing must be 10 times the height of the mast, which, given the density of dwellings, makes it hard to find a spot anywhere. Wind energy development is practically stalled in the state now. Brandenburg, the state surrounding Berlin, passed a law this year demanding that wind-farm operators pay 10,000 euros ($11,100) per turbine each year to communities within 3 kilometers of the windmills.

…local opponents of the wind farms often go to court to stall new developments or even have existing towers dismantled. According to the wind-industry lobby BWE, 325 turbine installations with a total capacity of more than 1 gigawatt (some 2% of the country’s total installed capacity) are tied up in litigation. The irony is that the litigants are often just as “green” as the wind-energy proponents — one is the large conservation organization NABU, which says it’s not against wind energy as such but merely demands that installations are planned with preserving nature in mind. Almost half of the complaints are meant to protect various bird and bat species; others claim the turbines make too much noise or emit too much low-frequency infrasound. Regardless of the validity of such claims, projects get tied up in the courts even after jumping through the many hoops necessary to get a permit.

Another reason for local resistance to the wind farms is a form of Nimbyism: People hate the way the wind towers change landscapes. There’s even a German word for it, Verspargelung, roughly translated aspollution with giant asparagus sticks.

As I wrote earlier, more and more the sphere of individual action shrinks and that of collective action grows and, as a result, nothing can get done because there are so many veto players in the system. We have locked ourselves into an innovation prisoner’s dilemma where each player can say no and as a result we are all worse off.

Windmill, Energy, The Windmills, Wind, The Power Of


Asparagusation is a better translation

Better would bes an elegant German word for "bird shredder".


The first word is best, but the last two are so much fun to read, in deep German commanding tone: VOGELHACKMASCHINE, ACHTUNG!

Solar farms have a similar resistance, although the reasons differ. Three or four thousand acres covered with solar panels is not the most aesthetically pleasing neighbor. Some electric utilities are investing in solar farms in a big way. One company in the southeast has a goal of 30 million solar panels by the year 2030. 30 million!

Australia has 50+ million solar panels now. They supply around 8.5% of our electricity consumption. Solar farms are actually usually hard to see from the ground, but only about 32% of our panels are in solar farms. Most are on roofs.

In 10 years we've gone from next to nothing to getting about 18% of our electricity from solar and wind. We have a ways to go before our electricity sector is carbon neutral and air pollution free, but at least we've made a start.

Fast forward to 2050, Australian child asks grandfather, "What did we use before candles?" Grandfather answers, "Light bulbs."

End the subsidies and the mandates that support wind and solar farms.

It certainly makes more sense to make fossil fuel generation pay for its externalities than to subsidize renewable energy. Unfortunately, Australia's subsidies for large scale renewable generation are being allowed to end now that our reduced large scale generation Renewable Energy Target has been met without without the cost of externalities being priced in.

If fossil fuel generation pays for "negative externalities" does it also get credit for "positive externalities"?

In Washington and Oregon in the US, a huge grape growing and wine industry has emerged in the last three decades. Why not before?

Everyone assumes that negative changes are man made and positive changes are natural.

Any kind of thorough systematic analysis of the "externalities" of carbon would have to conclude that they are net positive by orders of magnitude.

The positive externalities of global warming outweighing the negative ones is not plausible given the cities are built for current sea levels, the lack of good soil at higher latitudes, the low productivity of tropical regions, the physiology of humans and domesticated plants and animals, and the still unknown effects on ecosystems.

But hey, I'm open to ideas. What's say we stop increasing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and stop and evaluate the changes? Obviously we want to be sure the benefits of say, rising sea levels, outweigh the costs before we further accelerate the process.

"cities are built for current sea levels"
Phhht! Hilarious. Go to the waterfront in NYC. Is it under water? Holy shit, man, get your nose out of the book and check out the real world.

"lack of good soil at higher latitudes"
??? Call the Canadians and let them know, they've been farming in ignorance for centuries.

"the physiology of humans and domesticated plants and animals"
That's the biggest laugher yet.

If AGW is so bad, why are things in the world so much better than ever before?

And the Green yelled from his Ivory tower: "why don't you peasants use cake candles!"

Dick, I doubt Australians will use candles for lighting in the future given that electricity is far cheaper and much more convenient and safer. Especially since electricity should be considerably cheaper in 2050 thanks to its falling cost. Candles don't even make sense during power failures given options that are now available. You can buy a solar light for less than what a box of candles costs. They were selling piss weak ones in the supermarket the other day for 35 US cents.

You don't really think solar panels are pollution free, do you? Or that they're 'carbon neutral'?

Because they're not. To start with, there's the big fossil fuel generators that are running on standby to take the load when they fall short (such as on a cloudy day or every night).

The amount of spinning reserve in a grid is typically determined by the size of the largest generator in the region. In Australia these are generally coal power stations.

The pointiness of the blades of modern windmills is disturbing-looking. I'd give up, say, 5% of the efficiency if somebody could design more rounded tips that wouldn't look as frightening.

Why don't they have a bent-upwards wing ends like modern passenger jets? Something to do with the Reynolds Number, or the interaction with the wake of the other blades?

To increase efficiency and to reduce vibration and noise. The design is much like that of a helicopter's blades, which rotate so fast they can break the sound barrier. Of course, the urban legend is that the pointed tip is better for killing birds.

I would welcome designs like this:

I'd pay 5% extra for windmills to mount blades that look like the enormous sword sculptures that Saddam Hussein had made.

Resistance to development is a recurring theme in Tabarrok's blog posts. But if one reads this article with before and after photos one might wonder where the resistance is:

The diced carcasses of large birds and bats scattered on the ground do mar all that beauty on a closer inspection.

That and the blood all over the windmill blades.

Windmills suck. And when they fall apart after ten years, you have to bury tons of metal. Thank God for the veto -- we are all better off.

Don't become entangled in a land war in Asia.

Don't step on Superman's cape.

Don't believe the left.

Not many bird deaths caused by wind turbines:

If they were bird killing machines this might be considered a plus here, but our birds tend not to smack into them.

That capacity mentioned is not dependable capacity. Each MW of wind (and solar) needs dependable backup. In Germany that increasingly tends to be brown coal nowadays if they can't get it from French nukes. Or brownouts and blackouts.

No, the amount of lignite and anthracite burned for electrical generation continues to decline. 'Germany generated significantly less electricity from coal-fired power stations in the first half of 2019, with output down by more than a fifth compared to a year earlier.

Generation from brown coal (lignite) was down by 14 terawatt hours (TWh, 21%) and hard coal was down by 8TWh (24%). With gas generation only increasing moderately (3TWh), the German power sector’s emissions fell by 20m tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2, 19%).' From a guest post by Karsten Capion, a senior adviser at Danish Energy, the membership body for the Danish energy industry titled 'Why German coal power is falling fast in 2019'.

They’re still at almost 40% coal, in an environment where it should be falling precipitously.

US coal as energy mix:
2014 - 39%
2018 - 27%

2014 - 40%
2018 - 38.5%


Thanks for the additional data that Germany is not increasingly burning coal, brown or otherwise, as a backup for wind or solar power.

You’re welcome.

On a quick ceteris paribus level, Germany should have dropped to at least ~30% especially given the $220 billion invested in renewable energy.

In other words, Germany realized the same % drop in emissions as the US, but at the cost of an additional $5,000 per worker.

Again, what does that have to do with proving that Germany is not increasingly burning coal to deal due to using solar and wind?

They aren't, as your own numbers also clearly show.

In a relative sense, they are. They have traded nuclear for brown coal

And in an absolute sense, Germany is burning less coal today than in the past. There has not been an increase in coal burning due to using solar and wind. They have not traded nuclear for brown coal, as both the article using 2019 numbers or Skeptical's earlier numbers show. Coal burning has declined, not increased.

Depends on your measurement.

In 2009 Germany burned 71.7 million TOE of coal. On average, they burned 76.8 million TOE of coal each year in the 2010s.

Most of the rolling averages are still up to account for the 11.1 million TOE of coal increase Germany had from 2009 to 2013; an increase not seen anywhere else in the developed world. I mean this unique increase only killed a few hundred Germans every year for a decade.

But we understand. This is Germany. Maintaining adherence to ideology sometimes requires that a few people die. And besides the dead were just the weak, infirm, and inferior, right?

It does not depend on your measurement, as the article using 2019 numbers clearly shows. 'Germany generated significantly less electricity from coal-fired power stations in the first half of 2019, with output down by more than a fifth compared to a year earlier.

Generation from brown coal (lignite) was down by 14 terawatt hours (TWh, 21%) and hard coal was down by 8TWh (24%). With gas generation only increasing moderately (3TWh), the German power sector’s emissions fell by 20m tonnes of CO2 (MtCO2, 19%).'

Germany is simply not burning more coal to deal with using wind and solar for electrical generation.

Average annual consumption for the 2010s is still at 74.4 million TOE even with 2019 figures.

Last I checked 71.1 < 74.4

Now sure, in a few more years German gross coal consumption will actually be down on net from their previous low. This is not to "deal with using wind and solar", this is to deal with denulearization.

Be we understand. Germans have always enjoyed chanting mantras and if a few lives (though only of the weak and infirm) have to be sacrificed, well that's the German way.

Heil Mein Denuklearisierung!

The beginning of this entire thread was a comment talking about electrical generation, and not a single quoted number, whether current numbers from the first half of 2019 or between 2014-2018 shows any increase in burning coal for electrical generation.

One assumes that with stable German steel production, the amount of anthracite being used for that purpose would remain unchanged. According to this information from 2017, that figure is actually not small - The main consumers of hard coal in Germany are the power stations and the steel industry. In 2017, power stations accounted for 78% of total consumption of hard coal, the steel industry for 20%, and other industry, home fires and small-scale consumers for roughly 2%.

One can reasonably assume that the amount of coal used for steel making will remain unchanged assuming the same amount of steel is made. The figures quoted in the 2019 article are not for total coal consumption, but for coal burned for electricity. Which has been declining, not increasing.

Maybe you can provide a link to bolster your numbers, because "Germany’s Coal Consumption was reported at 66.399 TOE mn in Dec 2018. This records a decrease from the previous number of 71.533 TOE mn for Dec 2017." would suggest that your attempt to talk about averages is woefully inadequate. Instead, from exactly the same source, why not use this figure? "Germany’s Coal Consumption data is updated yearly, averaging 109.978 TOE mn from Dec 1965 to Dec 2018, with 54 observations." 109 .978 TOE mn is a much more impressive figure than 74.4 million TOE, I am sure you would agree. And just as relevant.

Skeptical is right. Germany's results are extremely poor when one considers the resources that Germany has spent on its "energy turnaround".

The problem is the extremely planned economy approach of Germany. The technologies and the prices are highly predetermined. Billions and trillions have been spent, and if you consider this, the results are really bad.

This was to be expected, Germany ignores even fundamental economic laws. Econ 101, or even more fundamental, it's so ridiculous.

Of course, billions of wasted tax money can be used to (temporarily) cover up many mistakes, but this is not a model for other countries or even the world.

German coal consumption reached its previous nadir back in 2009. It then had gross increases in consumption until 2013. It, barely, deceeded 2009 gross coal consumption in 2017. 2018 is the first, and thus far only, year to actually consume less coal than in 2009.

Lest we think this is some chicanery, the US curve shows small climb from 2009 to 2010 and the massively greater drops. Austria is noisier, but again drops much more. Belgium, well they managed to eliminate something like two thirds of their coal consumption.

At the end of the day, if Germany had just maintained 2009 levels of coal consumption, she would have burned 46 million fewer TOE equivalents than reality showed. Per official numbers, those 46 million TOE resulted in just a few jumbo-jet fulls of people dying.

What is particularly terrible is how much coal Germany consumes per $ of GDP. In spite of Germany's continued use of co-located, strip-mined coal for power (i.e. more efficient), it consumes about 10% more coal per unit of GDP than the US. This in spite of dumping much more money per capita or per unit of GDP into "clean power".

I suppose we could follow the German model: denuklearisierung at all costs, consume more net coal for a decade than previous trendline, and kill a low 4 figure number of people ... Or we could also burn less coal today than 10 years ago, and actually burn less for 9 of those ten, and have those evil nuke plants still running.

German power generation lost basically a generation. Yeah, Poland burnt more coal last year than the year before ... but somehow their net consumption over the last decade is actually down from previous trend. But who would actually want to emit gigatonnes less carbon dioxide, tonnes less particulent matter, and all manner of noxious materials?

As far as using 1965 data, why on earth would that be relevant? Unification only happened in 1990 and everything prior is part of the communist bloc's utterly idiotic energy policy. I would discount everything from at least 1995 prior as a lot of the heavy industry was literally make work in the DDR. You will get no credit for me for running up inefficient coal consumption and then dropping back towards sanity.

It's a pedant-off

Finally, we are back to the actual point that started this whole thread. Using numbers that satisfy you, Germany is not increasingly using coal to generate electricity due to solar and wind, it has been burning less coal since at least 2 and 1/2 years.

Germany increased coal use over the last decade. It did so uniquely.

Yes, she has burned less over the last 2 years. If this continues at the level of the last two years in the series it will only take only 16.4 years to offset the increased coal consumption of the 2010s.

More importantly, though, her coal plants killed more people over the last decade. If only there had been some safe alternative that would not have killed small children. Ah well, it is Germany after all, we do have to expect obsession with ideology to be more important than loss of life.

That’s now how ceteris paribus works.

I think what you are seeing is Germany not wanting to increase their reliance on gas purchased from the Russian bear. And independence from Russia is something Europeans should invest in.

Their recent banning of fracking isn’t exactly conducive to such independence.

Green parties and left-wing parties across the globe tend to have strong ties to russian interests and carry water for Russia.

The Saudis are also reliable supporters of fracking bans.

Let's face it, the Russians are still probably closet Commies, intent on a conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.

Actually, the Russians are still imperialists. It was the Commies that tried to be in the closet about that fact, not that it fooled any of the nations that were part of the Russian Empire before enjoying the brotherly fraternity of the USSR.

Today, the communist claptrap is gone - and the Crimea. for example has returned to its rightful owners. OK, the Tatars didn't get it back, but the Russians conquered it fair and square.


Not understanding the last sentence re: the shrinking sphere of individual action yet so many veto players in the system able to say no. Also interested in the influence of the collective on improvements to development rather than its suppression.

Same here. If there were veto power at the beginning, that should have stopped the collective action; so, the comment only makes sense if the rules changes and veto power is added at later stages.

But, a veto can also be bought me more for my site.

I suspect what it is is that the number of sites is declining, so you are getting to the margin of what is acceptable for, the low hanging fruit has been plucked.

Or, it may be that the utility is trying to restrict the supply of additional generators.

Who knows.

Yes, TC. People who veto what you SJWs know is the one true path should be ignored or more appropriately, imprisoned er... I mean sent to re-education camps. I'm sure TC has a litmus test he uses to determine whether a view is "acceptable" or not. If you read this blog and don't find it a strange (and glaring) failing that an economist is suggesting people make decisions (i.e value judgements) which can't possibly be in their own best interest, then you have even less understanding of what the basis for economics is than I do.

You realise this is a post from Alex. They are not identical twins.

Is Greta for or against your local windfarm or does she practise creative ambiguity? If you do not support windfarms in deathly opposition to all local nimbys, you are no friend of mine.

Greta seems like an authoritarian. I suspect she'd be in favor of ignoring the complaints of all the other stakeholders and massively building out wind power.

Robespierre was on the spectrum, too, supposedly.

Why don't we just hang the windmills from clouds?

It's been tried, but has turned out to be quite difficult. A broken cable can be a safety hazard and it's a threat to aviation:

[ "more and more the sphere of individual action shrinks and that of collective action grows and, as a result, nothing can get done because there are so many veto players in the system." ]

?? Alex and TC are confused, as @Neurotic notes above.

If collective-action grows (top-down central control) -- there are "less" vetoes, as much fewer people are in the decision-making process.

Alex' real complaint seems to be that government courts/judges are an extra outside impediment to "wise" economic planning (collectivism).

This issue relates to the larger issue of Zoning Restrictions, often discussed on this blog.

How many skyscrapers and tall commercial buildings in Germany's many cities have been retrofitted and capped with at least one windmill mast and wind turbine?

Couldn't at least 325 working wind turbines be installed atop tall buildings in German cities? (Has ANY wind turbine been installed atop ANY tall building in ANY German city?)

How about in the US? With all the engineered elevation available, why aren't America's skyscrapers spinning energy for us all?

The foundations for typical large blade turbines take a LOT of concrete, think hundreds of tons, to accommodate the forces exerted by the blade.

Sticking one as a retrofit on the top (maximum lever arm) of a tall occupied urban structure seems like a bad idea.

With tall commercial buildings commonly being composed of tons of concrete and steel (in excess of only hundreds of tons of each component), any tall commercial building would seem a perfect candidate for accommodating a wind turbine with its large blades.

Surely different configurations of wind turbines can function efficiently with shorter (more?) blades. Such wind turbines need not be quite as monumental as any building serving as its foundation.

An enterprising engineer could surely design functional, efficient wind turbines to go on EVERY ONE of the entire globe's skyscrapers.

I believe the primary structural issue is the horizontal force applied at the top of the building, albeit not my field. But the cost to retrofit rooftops to support just the vertical load wouldn’t be trivial.

The primary reason that blades have gotten longer over the past few decades is that longer blades are more efficient, and larger generators (more KWs) per structure also tend to be more cost efficient. Another reason (possibly favoring rooftops) is that air flow above ground effect height is faster and more consistent. Small installations don’t pencil out, given other options.

One could certainly put small turbines on buildings. There are reasons no one does.


--but this strikes me as no more perilous than what pedestrians can otherwise expect at ground level among tall buildings.

When I worked at locations in Chicago's Loop, March and April were perilous months when large chunks of melting ice would slide off to plummet to streets and sidewalks below: one pedestrian death a year (at least) from refrigerator-sized ice blocks hitting susceptible pedestrians? one every other year? I do recall fatalities and injuries . . .

It wouldn't be cost effective. In order to be viable, wind energy must be as cheap as possible. It already suffers from intermittency which effectively makes it far more expensive to rely on.

“ a result we are all worse off.” First of all, the people who are resisting don’t think they are worse off by stopping windmills. Are libertarian economists now totalitarian know-it-alls? Second, there is only one favorable metric for windmills: no CO2 output during generation. Ignored is death of birds, extreme difficulty of recycling the windmill blades, mining needed for all the materials used in construction and output distribution, intermittent power supply requiring redundant systems (this must be factored into environmental impacts), and a 20-year lifespan per tower, after which expensive decommissioning or reconstruction is required. No, we are all better off with fewer windmills.

>Are libertarian economists now totalitarian know-it-alls?

There are no libertarian economists on this blog, nor have there ever been.

Wind turbines aren't a panacea, but they aren't as bad as you make them out to be.

Yes, they do kill birds, but so do buildings in general.

"extreme difficulty of recycling the windmill blades"

That's just ludicrous. There's nothing extremely difficult about recycling wind turbine blades. They're basically airplane wings.

" and a 20-year lifespan per tower, after which expensive decommissioning or reconstruction is required"

This is also ludicrous. A 20-year lifespan means that it's "rated" to last at least that long. The US airforce routinely flies bombers that had a 20-year life cycle when they were built in the early '60's. Ignoring the possibility of some power source making them completely obsolete, there is no reason modern wind turbines won't be producing electricity for the next century. Granted, the turbine itself will have to be pulled off and replaced with a refurbished one periodically.

1. We don't need to deal with as many decommissioned airplanes each year as we do decommissioned turbines. And that's right now.

2. 20 year rated wind turbines aren't making 20 years *now*. And the USAF spends a yuuuuuge amount of money and manpower to ensure those airframes are still flyable. Turbines don't get that sort of care.

Wind power is a bad idea anyway. The equilibrium will be solved by Germany neighbors just building nuclear reactors at the frontier.

I tend to agree. Solar and nuclear seem like they will beat out wind in the long run.

Here as in his previous post on collective vs individual action, Alex presents a false dilemma. Almost every instance of what he calls "individual action" is actually collective action, just with fewer members of the collective. The larger the collective grows, the more potential stakeholders there are. Alex may be correct that demonstration is more powerful than the imagination. But it remains true that there have been countless lives lost and suffering inflicted because "permissionless innovation" didn't consult enough people who could be affected.

Notice, as well, that Alex's primary examples are profit-making ventures, as thought that were the only kind. Are we supposed to believe from this brief survey that 'individual' action of *all* kinds is becoming more scarce? Or just among those who gain access to capital?

Windmills are the iceberg lettuce of electrical energy generation.

For those with access, today's WSJ has an article on just this subject - only it focuses on Idaho and Oregon.

Monstrosities... a fool's hope.

Windmills serve a function similar to that of cathedrals, which is to instill, maintain, or reinforce belief. But cathedrals are works of beauty, while windmills are ugly.

How many kWh do cathedrals produce?

Same as windmills, when the wind isn't blowing. :-)

But windmills feed belief 24/7!

Windmills and cathedrals produce the same amount of belief but windmills also get you electricity. I think that makes them worth the look.

Oh, pshaw! Go nuclear, young man, go nuclear.

We all know that Buffet worships at another altar than the one found in a cathedral - "A company linked to U.S. investor Warren Buffett says it will break ground on a $200-million, 117.6-megawatt wind farm in southeastern Alberta next year."

Buffet likes profit, not building cathedrals, and he has a long track record proving he is very, very good at making money. "BHE Canada says an unnamed large Canadian corporate partner has signed a long-term power purchase agreement for the majority of the energy output generated by the 28 turbines at Rattlesnake Ridge.

"If you look at just the raw power price that power is going for in Alberta right now, it's averaged around $55 a megawatt hour, or 5.5 cents a kilowatt hour. And we're selling the wind power to this customer at substantially less than that, and there's been no subsidies," Christensen said."

And because Buffet is interested in profit, here is the next section from the article - "But he says BHE Canada is interested in making investments in traditional energy in Alberta, too.

"It's not a choice of one or the other. I think there is still opportunity to make investments in oil and gas," he said.

"We're really excited about having this project and hope to be able to make other investments here in Alberta to help support the economy here."" It is not either/or, as Buffett knows - just follow the money, like Buffet does.

Profit has nothing to do with cost efficiency though. Organic farming, for instance, can be highly profitable, yet vastly less efficient.

For that matter hand-made anything tends to have higher profit margins than machine stamped anything; yet the latter is almost always more efficient for most measures.

Wind likely is a good profit maker, but with tax incentives, PR value, and the like it may not be as innately profitable as other options. It looks like it has become more profitable since I last took a deep dive into the lifecycle numbers, but just because a billionaire makes a mint does tell me a whole lot about the utility of the entire sector.

Buffet probably has a minimum of 2,500 wind turbines. The actual and planned total may be closer to 5,000 or 10,000.

I guess it was worth scanning the comments for the comical responses. A windmill can't be a good thing, if it's not your favourite thing ..

Reminds me of some bicycle zealots I met that are all up in arms with Elon Musk. Why? With electric cars he is just prolonging the life of the car(!), and he is delaying bicycle nirvana.

(And birds .. wait until you hear about the cats! Or the people who eat birds!! I hear there is a whole cult built around Thanksgiving!!!)

"he is just prolonging the life of the car(!), and he is delaying bicycle nirvana "


Its not a prisoner's dilemma.

Its simply the end result of so many people insisting we all belong to the same collective and that all collective members must cede power over their individual lives to the small percentage of the collective they like to call 'government'.

Something to keep in mind the next time you see a problem and you think 'government should fix that'.


I was about to post a comment along the same lines, but not quite. I don’t see this as an example of a prisoner’s dilemma, but rather of overlapping property rights as in Michael Heller’s The gridlock economy or Larry Summers’ “promiscuous veto power”. In the case of windmills, the overlapping property rights were not there from the start but appeared with extension of the notion of “nuisance” which gives landowners creeping veto power over what their neighbors are doing.


They'll have to move them off-shore to keep them out of sight, and even that might be hard politically. What will realistically happen is that they'll just end up burning more natural gas for power for the foreseeable future, something you can see implicitly with the German government's anger over the US obstructing the construction of a natural gas pipeline funneling in Russian natural gas.

As I wrote earlier, more and more the sphere of individual action shrinks and that of collective action grows and, as a result, nothing can get done because there are so many veto players in the system.

That reminds me of how it's easier to do infrastructure projects in Japan precisely because individual land/property rights are much stronger - you just have to negotiate with the land-owners on the route, rather than suffer a million suits from vaguely connected parties.

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