Business Outrage of the Week: Current Electric Cars Suck (Fossil Fuel)

Okay, I am hip to the greening of America and the world. My sister’s boyfriend is one of the world’s experts (he works at Harvard in partnership with NASA measuring gamma rays from satellites) on the long-term effects of global warming. He’s shown me pictures of Harvard Yard under water in the not too distant future. I get that we have a problem. It’s just the way we go about trying to solve it, or even think about it, that is outrageously insane IMO.

Larry David drives a Prius. The fact that his now ex-wife bought it for him and he holds onto it for some sick reason is not my point. He says its because he’s committed to the environment. That’s my point.  He drives a Prius to save the planet and at the same time flies private. His jet burns 3,000 pounds of fuel per hour. Let’s see, that’s somewhere around twenty thousand pounds of fuel for each of his trips from LA to NYC (one way).

You get my drift.

Now I understand the instinct to want to get rid of gas powered anything.  Plugging in your car just sounds like a much better, a much greener, solution to personal transport. But let’s just dig in a tiny bit to understand the actual impact of switching to the Volt or the Tesla.

No one (and really I mean no one, I have not read about this anywhere in all the hype over the new and wonderful gasless cars promoted by Obama and any number of wonderful entrepreneurs in the U.S. and abroad) is talking about how we generate and transport electricity to these new vehicles.

The majority of the electricity in the United States is produced using coal. While certainly new technologies, like scrubbers, are attempting to improve the situation, coal power plants are responsible for 93 percent of the sulfur dioxide and 80 percent of the nitrogen oxide emissions generated by the electric utility industry.  Acid rain, strip mining and all kinds of other environmental disasters are attributable to our dependence on coal.

Perhaps even more important, the electric grid* that moves electricity from our coal powered plants to the outlet which charges your car is horribly antiquated and inefficient.  What experts call the power loss due to “friction” in this system is massive.  The result is that using fossil fuels directly is far less damaging to the environment than using fossil fuels in some plant miles away and then attempting to transport that power down old power lines to charge a battery in a car.

“The grid today, according to experts, is a system conceived 100 years ago to let utilities prop each other up, reducing blackouts and sharing power in small regions. It resembles a network of streets, avenues and country roads,” according to the NYT.

“We need an interstate transmission superhighway system,” said Suedeen G. Kelly, a member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

Source NPR “Visualizing The U.S. Electric Grid”

Let’s play with some numbers shall we? 

A full charge of a plug-in car like a Tesla requires 53-kilowatt hours. As a reference point,  I use about 11.9-megawatt hours per year in my home. I drive about 15,000 miles per year, so that means 62 charges, or 3-megawatt hours.

1. Half of all electricity is lost to friction in the grid. This assumption would certainly be hotly debated particularly by the electrical industry whose job it is to produce and transport electricity. If you look on the web you will find numbers as low as single digits and as high as two-thirds.  Your actual loss to friction will depend on where you live, what time of day you plug in, how far you live from the power plant, and whether or not there is a bottle-neck in the grid.  If you are hoping to use non fossil fuel to charge your car the loss to friction will generally be a lot higher because the distance to the nuclear or hydro or thermal plant or wind farm is greater. From the experts who I have spoken to on the topic, all agree the grid is a 100 years-old and vastly inefficient except the electrical industry who has an economic interest in minimizing the problem.

2. Half of what is left is lost in charging the battery, and then half again lost in the battery discharge.  “Battery charging is inherently inefficient because of the heat that’s generated. Fans and cooling systems in the car operate during the process, and they use some more of the electricity that’s coming down the charge cord,” notes Edmunds.  Battery technology is improving but batteries by their nature will always be inefficient in terms of how they get charged and the leakage out of the battery over time before it can be used. In order for the whole idea of battery powered vehicles to make any sense you have to use a local and infinite power source (think plugging your car into the wind mill in your back yard).  For more on that see Cruise Car below.

3. Which means that almost 90% of the electricty produced by the grid to fuel up my Tesla goes to waste.

The 3-megawatt hours I need is really 30 megawatt hours, which would take the strain on the grid up to 42 megawatt hours per person (4x more).  This is awesome because instead of going through 965 million tons of coal for electricity (57% of electricity in the US is generating using coal before counting natural gas, petroleum and other fossil fuels so I am assuming my electricity comes from coal here for simplicity sake)** we’d go through 2.9 billion tons of coal a year an increase of almost 2 billion tons of coal if everyone got one.  Of course we wouldn’t use the 72 billion gallons of gas a year, but that’s nothing compared to the new 2 billion tons of coal.  By weight we’re just trading 518 million tons of gas for 2 billion tons of coal.  That’s 4x more in fossil fuels to run my Tesla and coal burns a lot dirtier than gas.

I realize I am making some assumptions here that are counter to common wisdom.  My point is that the car and electrical industries have a vested interest in not considering the scale of the issues I am pointing out. But I could very well be wrong.  Let’s just say that I am off by 100% (so a Tesla uses just 2x the fossil fuel) or even 300% (the Tesla uses the same amount of fossil fuel as a regular car), my point remains: if you think driving an electric car because you are contributing to a greener planet you are deluding yourself. We produce the majority of our power using fossil fuel, transport it down an antiquated and massively inefficient grid, to store in a battery that by definition leaks energy on the way in and out.  The whole model is completely wrong and not changing anytime soon.

Interestingly, a green organization that you would think would be pushing for more electric cars not less, came to more or less the same conclusion I did here. “If you want to make an impact on CO2 emissions with your next car purchase, you need to know how the electricity in your region is generated before making your choice.”

Autoblogreen makes the additional point that, “The battery-powered cars are much more energy intensive to build than gas or hybrid cars, based mostly on the cost of producing the batteries themselves.” And of course the end of life disposal of batteries is a far more toxic issue than breaking down a combustion engine.

One possible solution has been developed by a company called Cruise Car in Sarasota, Florida. Like plugging your car into the wind mill in your backyard, Cruise Cars have developed technology which includes strapping a solar panel to the roof of a glamorized golf cart that quite literally never have to be plugged in (with limitations on range).  I am not sure I’m going to take a Cruise Car out on the freeway anytime soon nor would they be ideal in mid-winter here in Boston but at least they are a step in the right direction by getting completely off the grid and away from fossil fuel completely.

But at the moment big auto isn’t thinking about local power as the solution to transportation, just continuing to plug into a the existing utility infrastructure.Like Larry David we are all just fooling ourselves when it comes to current electric cars.  They suck. And it’s outrageous.  I’m sticking with my gas-powered Volvo sedan. Or maybe I’ll get a cruise car and take it out on the freeway to get in the way of all those gas-guzzling Teslas, Volts, and Priuses.


* It is hard to find anyone who has anything very complimentary to say about the US grid. When Bill Richardson was energy secretary  he called the grid a third-world grid.

The Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, prepared by the American Society of Civil Engineers, gives the US Electric Grid a rating of D. Its summary says the following:

The U.S. power transmission system is in urgent need of modernization. Growth in electricity demand and investment in new power plants has not been matched by investment in new transmission facilities. Maintenance expenditures have decreased 1% per year since 1992. Existing transmission facilities were not designed for the current level of demand, resulting in an increased number of “bottlenecks,” which increase costs to consumers and elevate the risk of blackouts.

An article from EnergyBiz by Edwin D. Hill, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, says:

The average age of power transformers in service is 40 years, which also happens to be the average lifespan of this equipment. Combine the crying need for maintenance with a shrinking workforce, and we may find that the 2005 blackout that affected parts of Canada and the northeastern United States might have been a dress rehearsal for what’s to come. Deregulation and restructuring of the industry created downward pressure on recruitment, training and maintenance, and the bill is now coming due.

Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) chairman Joseph Kelliher is quoted as saying:

The U.S. transmission system has suffered from underinvestment for a sustained period. In 2005, the expansion of the interstate transmission grid in terms of circuit miles was only 0.5 percent. At the same time, congestion has been rising steadily since 1998. Transmission underinvestment is a national problem. We need a national solution. Pricing reform is an important part of the solution to this problem.

** 57% of U.S. electricity is produced by coal powered plants.  Natural Gas, Patroleum, and other fossil fuels make of a meaningful percentage of the rest along with Nuclear, Hydro, and Wind/Solar. I am assuming all coal here for simplicity sake.

About Tom Matlack

Thomas Matlack is a venture capitalist.


  1. I live in Rio, Brazil. I’m 36 years old and I have noticed that the amount of cars on the streets has tripled since I was a teenager. I commute by bike and it takes me around 30 minutes. Whenever I have to take a bus I spend at least 40 minutes with traffic. Subway still does not cover the entire city, so the ones who can afford to pay an average of US$15.000 for a basic car for theirs supposed freedom go for it with no regrets. And this has been causing life in the so called “Marvelous City” to be almost unbearable!

    I wish I could have an electric vehicle, though. My girlfriend suffers from epilepsy and it’s too risky for her to fight for a place on the asphalt by bike (as I do…). Electric cars are build on garages here and there but government does not show any interest on the matter. Some electric motorcycles are being produced by major companies, but they can hardly commute one person due to power issues.

    But one fuel that is known by Brazilians to be as efficient as gasoline is sugarcane alcohol. Some companies such as Volkswagen and ford have been producing “Flex” cars that work both with gasoline, alcohol or any myxture of the two fuels. I guess that could be an idea for such a huge country as US to reduce problems with coal and fossil fuel.

    Cheers from Brazil!

  2. James Hays says:

    First question, how much did the oil industry pay you to skew your article against EVs in this fashion? Yeah, okay, energy transportation is hugely inefficient, but will keep getting better as the grid and battery technology are updated. Meanwhile, gas and coal remain dirty.
    Second, energy efficiency isn’t the real problem. The real problem is that gasoline is a finite resource, and at the rate the world is using it currently, we will see the end of oil resources in our lifetimes. This means the cost is going to keep going up at the pumps.
    At one time (in my area) the price of gas went over three dollars a gallon and people screamed about it for months. Now the price is always over three dollars a gallon and people think it’s normal. In fact, if you can find a pump that charges close to $3 people think it’s a really good deal.
    The switch to EVs is a financial choice, not an environmental one. Sure, if you’re driving a hybrid or electric car, the blame for environmental problems falls from you, personally, and goes to the power grid (which can only get better as it’s improved). The longer you drive a hybrid or electric car, the less you are contributing to world pollution on a personal level, but that’s only a perk to switching to electric or hybrid cars.
    At a certain point, EVs will get popular enough that either the current energy companies move over to making electricity available for cars or they will go under financially. Right now, since most vehicles are gasoline-powered, they’re continuing to push oil production because it’s profitable. At a certain point, some bright bulb is going to figure out how to make money from EVs and then they’ll either rule from on high or the existing energy companies will get smart and emulate the tactic.
    And then it’ll all be downhill from there.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    William. On the presumption you’re not joking–and if you are, some may not get it–you can’t use hydrogen until it’s separated from the oxygen. The maximum amount of energy you get from burning hydrogen–which is to say, combining it with oxygen–is no more than the amount of energy it took to separate them in the first place. Less various inefficiencies, of course, including the energy to keep the stored hydrogen at cryogenic temperatures, or the vessels strong enough to contain it at high pressure so you can carry enough of it around to do you any good. And, when you burn hydrogen with air, which is mostly nitrogen, you get stuff you don’t want.
    It was a joke, right?

  4. Why haven’t Hydrogen powered cars been pushed more? All they would take is water.

  5. Ian Mckenna says:

    This comparison is very flawed. This article compares a gasoline car burning gasoline to the generation of electricity and transportation of that electricity into the car’s battery. You’ve completely neglected emissions from refineries, emissions produced through transportation, the impact that oil has in the world (destruction of northern Alberta, wars in the middle east, health, etc). Not many wars have been fought over coal.
    In all truth, it’s almost impossible to compare these two vehicles once you start digging that deep. However, you dug that deep to show how inefficient electric cars are so it’s only fair to do the same for gasoline cars.

  6. Richard Aubrey says:

    PH. Look up the law of the conservation of matter and energy. Learn it, live it, love it. When you switch on the engine of a hybrid, it will charge the battery. But it takes energy to do that. IOW, if you are running down the road without charging the battery, you’ll get X mpg. Should you hook in the charger–presuming this can be selected by the driver–your mpg will be something less than X because it takes energy to run the generator.
    In some children’s science exhibitions, you start, say, pedaling something. The attendant turns on one electric bulb after another, all powered by the pedaling chump in the machine. The more bulbs, the harder.
    As I said, the only free energy in this business is regenerative braking, and that presumes you have an electric motor and battery. It’s more useful in city driving and less so on the highway.

  7. ok but now also compare the costs to convert oil to gas and get it to the gas station and into your car………..

  8. Isn’t it right that the US population makes about 4% of the global, and creates 25% of the C02 total. What about some fairness here? Just a thought.

  9. The Bad Man says:

    Wow Tom, I’m really impressed. Let’s just say that there aren’t any simple solutions and that fossil fuels are primarily responsible for our wealth and standard of living. Any move away from fossil fuels is going to reduce our standard of living and competitiveness in the world market (less jobs).

    The early adopters are mostly middle class who can afford the luxuries of these new technologies but it’s simply not available to the majority of people. Simple solution for the short term is to increase efficiency and reduce waste by using smaller cars.

    • using smaller cars.

      The problem with that is Americans like bigger cars. One of the best selling vehicles is the f150

      • Also, it’s also generally safer to be in larger vehicles

        • Paul Scott says:

          Alice, there is absolutely no evidence that supports your statement. Both the Nissan LEAF and GM Volt are rated 5 stars for safety, among the safest vehicles you can buy. I know of no large trucks or SUVs that are rated 5 stars. The large SUVs in particular are prone to turning over due to their high center of gravity. They are inherently unsafe. They give the impression they are safe because you are wrapped up in such a large vehicle, but then that just makes you more dangerous to others. I guess that’s a selfish thing.

      • Paul Scott says:

        While the F-150 is a popular vehicle, it’s also true that the price of gas is heavily subsidized. If the true cost of oil was reflected in the price at the pump, the large, inefficient vehicles would not be nearly as popular. Most people who buy the large trucks and SUVs never, ever use the full capacity of those vehicles. They could easily do what they need to do with a smaller, more efficient vehicle. It’s the subsidized price of fuel that allows them to waste and pollute with impunity.

  10. Dont some electric and hybrid cars charge thier own battery when you switch to the gas motor?

    • Peter Houlihan says:

      Electric ones no, by definition they don’t have an IC engine. Hybrid ones yes, that’s what hybrid engines are.

  11. I ride the bus to work- the stop is about 200 yds from my front door. Usually I am the only one who gets on at my stop. I drive about 3000 miles a year as a result- I drive those miles in an aging, but very well preserved, German sports sedan that gets about 16 mi to the gallon of premium unleaded.

    Makes for interesting conversations about carbon footprint with my hybrid driving neighbors. Thanks for giving me more ammo for these discussions. 😉

  12. Richard Aubrey says:

    It’s been said that, since a car on electric–idling at a light–makes no noise, and none when it starts up–to go around a corner–pedestrians are at extra risk. So a car should be equipped with a noise maker. One suggestion on Instapundit is. “smugsmugsmugsmugsmug”
    The only way to get something for nothing in this business is regenerative braking, and that presumes an electric car in the first place, which, as you point out, is a dumb idea, even if NI were not such a horrid substance to mine, refine, and dispose.
    As to energy costs…. we have a bunch of people, most of whom could, with some effort, figure out a way to fit into one of the manifold victims groups we have around here and demand a break on energy costs, so as to heat their homes and not freeze (“elderly, women, blacks, children hardest hit””

    • ot freeze (“elderly, women, blacks, children hardest hit

      lmao I thought about saying that

      I read some article about how magnetic force or something from the atmosphere could pass thru an electric car and cause it to accelerate or brake…Scary! Then I heard somewhere else if there are enough electric cars they can interfere with a city’s electrical grid…. So yeah there’s a lot of stuff they need to work on.

      “He drives a Prius to save the planet and ”
      Prius? Oh my…I bet he speeds on the highway,too!
      First of all, politicians are tinkering with the idea of a gas mileage tax (how you like that gps in your car?), so those suckers are always coming up with ways to suck $$$ from people. Then I see these prius drivers speeding by and 70,80,85 mph. i guess they didn’t read the fine print-you have to drive at 55-60 mph to get that mpg on the sticker.

      • Paul Scott says:

        Alice, you have to stop reading these crazy articles about scary EVs. “I read some article about how magnetic force or something from the atmosphere could pass thru an electric car and cause it to accelerate or brake…Scary!” Scary indeed. Noting of the sort is possible. I’ll tell you what’s scary, being dependent on foreign countries for our energy. Why would you want to use foreign oil with all of its negative attributes, when you can easily do all of your daily driving on clean, renewable electricity?

        And if you don’t want to use it, at least you should be supportive of others using it since for every EV that replaces a gas-burner helps keep you sir cleaner, reduces the demand for oil that drives up the price of gas for you, and that makes our country less reliant on foreign dictators, like the Saudis. It also reduces the need for us to go to war over a dwindling supply of oil.

    • Paul Scott says:

      There hasn’t been a single instance of any pedestrian hurt by an electric car. This is yet another scare tactic. My Nissan LEAF does have a noise maker on it, but I turn mine off when driving because I’m perfectly capable of stopping when there is a pedestrian in front of me.

      As for nickel in the batteries, the mining of nickel doesn’t harm the environment anywhere near the level of extracting, transporting, refining, delivering, and burning of oil. Besides. all of the new EVs are using lithium batteries. Lithium is non-toxic, it’s even digestible as proven by its use for decades as an anti-depressant.

  13. Richard Aubrey says:

    Jake. To what end? Global warming is a hoax. A scam. A fraud. It’s been busted. You know. I know. I know you know.
    Energy costs? Electricity for your laptop. Heating for the house. Let’s jerk some tears. Heating for the old folks.
    Walk or bike to work…. That would fit the nanny’s view that the betas (in the Brave New World sense) should live in 750 ft square warre
    ns near the Factory. The alphas (in the BTN sense) live in the ‘burbs, or wherever they want. Okay. I get that. You intend to be an alpha.
    Keeping the proles out of the green spaces.
    Pollution is dropping in the west, horrid in China and India. What do you intend to do about them? If nothing, then the rest of this is a waste of time.
    Next time, skip the decaf.

    • Exactly. There is this great big ball of fire out there in space that makes things hotter. ITA about China and India. There’s not much point in curtailing our carbon footprint when developing nations are polluting more and more all the time. What the US makes will soon be a drop in the bucket due to pollution from developing nations.

      And let’s suppose we do go to electric cars? From whom are we going to get it? Since environmentalists don’t like us mining here, i guess we can always just get chinese coal. *roll eyes*

      • Paul Scott says:

        Alice, why can’t you lease a solar PV system and generate clean electricity from sunlight falling on your roof? Solar has gotten so cheap the last couple of years that it’s actually lover then grid power in many states. For instance, I installed a 3 kW PV system in 2002 here in CA and it cost about $15K out of pocket. It has worked flawlessly for over 9 years generating about the same amount of energy year to year with a slight reduction of about 1% per year. My resulting electric bill averages about $100 per year. And that’s for both my house and car. For over 9 years and 102,000 miles, I’ve driven on sunlight, not once going to a gas station except to clean the windshield.

        Both my Toyota RAV4 EV and now my Nissan LEAF work perfectly all the time. The LEAF especially is fast. It’s like driving a very quiet BMW.

        You never give the oil companies another dime. Think about that. They can raise the price all they want, just like they did this past week (15 cents!), but it won’t effect you at all.

        Think about the national security side of this. We’re literally spending $80 billion every year for military protection to the world’s oil ( That’s 55 cents per gallon that no one pays. Hardly seems fair.

        Then there’s the Iraq war, a war we wouldn’t have fought if they had no oil. We spent $1.5 trillion and lost thousands of dead soldiers and tens of thousands of wounded, who we’ll pay for the rest of their lives – another trillion.

        All of this is because of our 99% reliance on oil for our transportation. That’s a dangerous strategic position to occupy.

        As for your earlier comment that we should just drill here, this is a meme that’s been bouncing around the right wing blogs for a long time. The truth is, we don’t have anywhere near the amount of oil for even 50% of our needs, once we’re out of the recession. And if we produce a lot more, OPEC will merely reduce their production. This results in us drilling our oil fast while the price is low, and then when we run out, we’ll be 90% reliant on foreign oil.

        You won’t pay lower prices when we drill our oil, you’ll pay the same, or higher, but more of it will go to the Saudis and their ilk.

        This is not some technology you can easily dismiss with snide remarks smacking of gross ignorance. We have dead soldiers on our hands here.

        • How about because i don’t have $15k to throw around???

          There’s plenty of oil in USA, especially in a place called Alaska. The problem is that everytime we go to drill there somebody/something gets in the way.

          I come from a military family, so don’t even try to guilt me about dead soldiers. *rolleyes*
          And electric cars have been around for awhile, but yet most cars are gasoline. There is probably a good reason that gasoline cars are more popular.

          • Paul Scott says:

            You may come from a military family, but that doesn’t give you a pass on your responsibility for using an energy resource over which we have to fight wars. If you think Bush could have made his case for the Iraq war without any oil in the country, you are delusional. It was all about the oil. All of his other reasons turned out to be lies.

            The entire U.S. military leadership is now solidly behind the transition to electricity for our personal transportation. They are also leading in the transition to EVs within the military, since the price of getting a gallon of diesel to the front lines in Afghanistan is as high as $400/gallon ( We also lose a soldier for every 82 fuel convoys since they are easy targets.

            So roll your eyes all you want, but the truth remains that relying on oil for 99% of our transportation is a huge strategic mistake that your own military acknowledges. And if dead soldiers don’t make you feel guilty about using oil, then I doubt you’d be very popular at Camp Pendelton down the road from me since those Marines know we’re fighting wars over oil.

            The $15K for solar was what I paid 9 years ago. Today, you don’t even have to pay anything for solar. Most everyone leases the systems now since it’s cheaper than buying. For zero money down, the company installs the solar, then you pay a lease payment that is less than the what the utility was charging you for their dirty power. We have at least 12 states doing this right now with more to come.

            Lastly, you may claim that there is plenty of oil in AK, but the oil companies themselves disagree with you. Yes, there is a lot, but not enough to keep us self sufficient for more than about 10 years at our current rate of use. Once we drill all of our oil, what will we do then?

  14. From now on when I see someone plugging in I’m going to say: “Nice coal car sucker!”. I hate to say this, but I’m going to anyways…what America needs is for the price of power to consumers to double…or triple. Imagine the problems that would be eliminated to vastly reduced tomorrow if gasoline was $15 a gallon and people were forced to walk/bike to work every day:

    1. Traffic
    2. Car insurance costs
    3. Accidents
    4. Pollution
    5. Obesity
    6. Diabetes
    7. Auto theft
    8. Dependence on foreign oil
    9. Health insurance cost
    10. Premature cellulite

    • I think that is just a horrible idea. it’s very unfair to people like me who commute to work instead of cramming myself into an already overpopulated city. So I guess to solve the problem a lot more people would have to move to the city so they can bike or walk to work, no?

      If we want to decrease our dependence on foreign oil we can just drill our own. And from my understanding a lot of petroleum is actually used for plastics not necessarily for cars.

      And if we wanted to lower health insurance costs for the general public there are other things that we can do-like get rid of health care mandates and let people purchase insurance across state lines to spur competition and lower prices.

      If someone cant afford their car insurance, then they should have gotten a car that’s cheaper -like an older one.

    • You say, “No one (and really I mean no one, I have not read about this anywhere in all the hype over the new and wonderful gasless cars promoted by Obama and any number of wonderful entrepreneurs in the U.S. and abroad) is talking about how we generate and transport electricity to these new vehicles.”

      Wow, that’s quite the statement! You need to learn how to use the Google. There are literally thousands of articles talking about where the power comes for EVs. The Plug In America site has compiled over 40 studies that looked at the well-to-wheels pollution of a gas car and EV. See In ever case, the EV was cleaner, even when coal made up over 90% of the grid mix, something only a handful of states experience.

      If you really cared about dirty electricity, You would take steps to install solar on your house, or at least sign up for your utility’s renewable energy program. Once your home is running on clean energy, then your EV will, too.

      I’ve been driving EVs for over 9 years and powering them with kWh I generate from the sunlight falling on my roof. My electric bill averages a mere $100 per YEAR, and I never go to gas stations to give those evil people my money. I’ve driven 102,000 miles on sunlight, and the cars keep working like brand new with virtually zero maintenance.

      I read the rest of your post and it’s as inaccurate as this part, I don’t have time to go into all of it, so if you want the truth about EVs just go to the Plug In America site and you’ll learn the reality behind these cars.


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