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Episode #34: ‘Taking the Grid of Tomorrow from Concept to Reality with Mark Gabriel, Former Administrator and CEO of Western Area Power Administration [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast]

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The ‘Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast’ features conversations with thought leaders in the utility sector. Each two weeks we’ll connect with an Energy Central Power Industry Network...

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This item is part of the Special Issue - 2021 - 05 - Grid Modernization, click here for more

As the latest entry into our Leadership Series, the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast was joined by Mark Gabriel, the outgoing CEO of Western Area Power Administration. Mark is passionate about all things grid, and his illustrious career across the utility sector has given him the type of wisdom and insights that have allowed him to be one of the forefront voices for the state of the grid today and what needs to be done to implement the grid of the future. Whether it’s in top trade publications, testifying in front of Congress, or sharing with the Energy Central Community, Mark’s voices has shaped thinking about grid modernization and will continue to do so for years to come.

In this episode, Mark covers all of the topics that are most important to his work and to those working on the grid: from the winter-storm blackouts in Texas to engineering a supergrid, from utility leadership to how grid operators directly influence justice and equity, and so much more. Host Jason Price and producer Matt Chester join Mark on this whirlwind episode where questions are raised, answered, and deeper questions raised again. If you work on the grid, you won’t want to miss Mark’s unparalleled expertise and perspective.

Prefer to Read vs. Listening? Scroll Down to Read Transcript.

Thanks to the sponsors of this episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast: West MonroeEsriAnterix, and ScottMadden

 

Key Links

Mark Gabriel’s Energy Central Profile: https://energycentral.com/member/profile/mark-gabriel

Bringing Arizona solar to East Coast evenings: Increasing connections in the power grid: https://energycentral.com/c/gr/bringing-arizona-solar-east-coast-evenings-increasing-connections-power-grid

 

 

TRANSCRIPT

Jason Price: 

Hello, and welcome to Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast. Today we have for you another episode of leadership series, where we bring CEOs into the podcast booth to discuss leadership in our changing energy and utility future. If this is your first time listening, this is our official podcast of energycentral.com. And we use it as a platform to bring in the movers and shakers of the utility industries to discuss the state of the sector today, the trends that are shaping the utility of the future and the innovators who are bringing about the change. I'm your host, Jason Price of West Monroe, Community Ambassador with Energy Central based in New York City. And I'm joined all the way from Orlando, Florida by producer of this podcast and Energy Central's Community Manager, Matt Chester. Matt, you and I have had the unfair advantage of meeting Mark Gabriel backstage. He's not only affable, but exudes incredible passion for his work, for a guy from the Bronx who has made good and big in the power industry. Are you buckled in? Because it's going to be a wild ride.

Matt Chester:

Well, I grew up in New Jersey, so I can say I'm happy to have on a guest who's already shown he knows a good bagel or pizza when he sees one.

Jason Price: 

Yep. And as a reminder, our leadership series is a special subset of podcast episodes where we're fortunate enough to feature CEOs who are really driving the energy sector. And we're so privileged to have with us today, the CEO of the Western Area Power Administration or WAPA, Mr. Mark Gabriel. WAPA is a key player in the Western United States to ensure reliability, resilience, and affordability of power to customers across a vast region. And those stakeholders are certainly fortunate to have Mark sitting at the helm, as his passion and knowledge for the utility sector guides his every decision. We'll dig a bit into Mark's path through the power industry and bring him into the podcast booth in just a moment. But first, we'd like to give a word of thanks to the sponsors of this podcast who made this episode possible. To West Monroe, West Monroe works with the nation's largest electric gas and water utilities and their telecommunication, grid modernization and digital workforce transformations.

Jason Price: 

West Monroe brings in a multidisciplinary team that blends utility, operations and technology expertise to address modernizing aging infrastructure, advisory on transportation electrification, ADMS deployments, and DER and cybersecurity. To Esri, Esri, an international supplier of geographic information, GIS software, web GIS, and geo database management applications. To Anterix, focused on delivering transformative broadband that enables the modernization of critical infrastructure for the energy, transportation, logistics and other sectors of our economy. And to ScottMadden, a management consulting firm serving clients across the energy, utility ecosystem. Areas of focus include, transmission, and distribution, the grid edge, generation, energy markets, rates and regulations, corporate sustainability and corporate services. The firm helps clients develop and implement strategies, improve critical operations, reorganize departments and entire companies and implement myriad initiatives.

Jason Price: 

Once again, we're so happy to bring to our podcast, Mark Gabriel, the CEO of Western Area Power Administration or WAPA. Mark's history in the power industry stretches back several directions, from his time with Central Vermont Public Service to the Electric Power Research Institute, to several consulting firms and finally taking the reins of WAPA in 2013. You've likely read Mark's thought leadership directly, or his opinions and perspectives quoted in many trade journals and also on the Energy Central. But whether his words are repeated in power industry boardrooms, or when testifying in front of Congress, he is influencing our thinking in the understanding of what our current and future state of transmission and distribution is in our country. His enthusiasm for his business is contagious and his background is pretty tough to match.

Jason Price: 

And when we started looking for key leaders who can speak to the importance of the grid and how we'll continue to evolve in the near and longterm future, there are few people who could come up with who would outpace Mark as a top guest. So let's not waste any more time talking about him. We want to get started talking to him. Mark Gabriel, welcome to today's episode of Energy, Central's Power Perspectives.

Mark Gabriel:  

Well, thanks. It's a great honor to be with you and talking about my favorite subject.

Jason Price: 

That's terrific Mark, even for seasoned veterans of the power sector, the alphabet soup we play with different entities can be a lot to keep up with. So just to start, can you give us an overview of what WAPA is and the role it plays in the US power sector?

Mark Gabriel: 

Yes certainly. The Western Area Power Administration takes the hydro-power from 57 dams across the Western United States. Some of the big dams you know, whether it is a Hoover Dam or Glen Canyon Dam, Flaming Gorge. And we put that out over 17,200 miles of transmission covering roughly 15 States. And I always try to talk about it in terms of size. Our footprint is 1.3 million square miles. It's like going from Paris to Moscow and Athens to Oslo with all the politics in between. It is an amazing organization, both given our breadth and our stretch across this great footprint in the West. WAPA's connected to more utilities than anyone else. Some other fun facts are we've got 320 substations of 488 communication sites, 114,000 structures and a partridge in a pear tree.

Jason Price: 

Fantastic. The state of the grid has become a topic of quite heated interest recently. And that was even the case before the fiasco in Texas that led so many, without power. Many people are calling the grid neglected, run down, and there's a need to re-engineer completely. Would you contend that this is unfair and unjustified, why is that?

Mark Gabriel: 

Well, if you look over the past 100 years, we've continuously upgraded and expanded the transmission system in the United States. In fact, WAPA alone spends roughly $160 million a year on upgrading its system. And that ranges on everything from more sensors and communication devices, to some really simple things like replacing wood poles with metal poles. So I think it's unfair to suggest that the grid is somehow falling down or third world. Now, certainly there are technologies that can be added to the grid and should be added to grid. Certainly, there are places where the transmission system needs to be bolstered, certainly, more investment in terms of resilience and reliability are going to be critical for us to manage in a low carbon or no carbon environment going forward.

Mark Gabriel: 

But I do bristle a little bit when folks say, oh, the grid is falling down. It really isn't. It can use more investment, but also we always have to balance the challenge of affordability. We could go plate the grid and then turn around and find ourselves not being able to afford those upgrades. That said, there are things we could do right now that would significantly improve how the grid operates. And those things are investments that some of them are very simple, some of them are more complex, but I think it's unfair to say that the grid is somehow falling down or third world.

Matt Chester: 

So Mark, is the grid being upgraded and invested in the way you suggest more or less uniformly across the country, or do you think there are some areas that might be lagging behind others?

Mark Gabriel: 

Clearly investments in the transmission system vary from region to region, from utility to utility, but given the critical nature of the transmission backbone or the United States, and quite frankly for any country, investments are being made. Your perspective on investments really depends on where you're standing. So for example, there are many renewable energy projects, which are not currently served by the transmission system. So there's clearly an amount of frustration. Gee, I don't have the transmission system in my backyard to easily hook to, on the other hand, virtually every utility I know that's in the transmission business is figuring out how can they cost effectively make upgrades to the system to handle what is really a fundamental change in operations. When you think about why WAPA, for example, built its transmission system, it was based to bring the power from those 57 hydro plants that I mentioned to the customers.

Mark Gabriel: 

Well over time, that is morphed. And now there are coal plants hooked to it, renewable power plants, gas plants. So the nature of the grid operations have really changed. We've also changed our expectations, 15 years ago, having a, A+ grid was good enough, but in a digital society, you need AAA quality power. So that how the grid is invested in is a direct result of the changing face of the energy industry. And I think people have to realize that remember, we all want three things. We want a reliable grid, a resilient grid, and we want a grid that is not so costly that we can't afford to make those changes.

Jason Price: 

Okay. But hold on. I want to be clear here. You're telling us that if we could rewind the tape to the early years of when the system was being planned and developed, it would likely turn out much the way it is today?

Mark Gabriel: 

I'm not sure it'd be a hundred percent the way it is today, but I can tell you, it will be fundamentally like we have it. Now, if I could rewind the tape a hundred years ago, what would we do differently? That's the question that I ask all the time. Well, first and foremost, from my perspective, this industry, the electric utility business has 2200 different entities that are engaged in it. So ownership of the transmission grid, for example, varies from things like WAPA, which is part of the Department of Energy to investor owned utilities, depending on where you are, to rural electric co-ops, to G&Ts in the cooperative business and to municipalities. So I would never have designed a system with so many players, but fundamentally, what are we trying to do? We try to move generation of all kinds to the populace. And the change over the decades, quite frankly, has also included the way the population has shifted.

Mark Gabriel: 

Just look at any major metropolitan area, particularly in the Western United States and the Southeastern United States. For example, Metro Atlanta was relatively small hub in Georgia, and now that it expanded out from the center. Well, in that expansion, it meant a number of players have to be engaged in how the transmission system is built. So rather than saying, I would build it exactly the same, I think it's more accurate to say if we were here a hundred years ago with perfect insight into the future, we would build the grid recognizing where the population centers are, recognizing where the generation was going to be. And then recognizing that we needed a different type of grid. One that is smarter, faster, more flexible, but of course, hindsight is 20/20, we don't have that kind of foresight. So what I try to look at is if I were to design a grid on a blank piece of paper, let's say on a desert island, certainly I would have a system with 765 kilovolt lines running North, South, East, and West, but that's not realistic in today's environment.

Mark Gabriel: 

I always ask the question, so what can I do today to improve grid resiliency and reliability, as well as having the right affordability. And to me that comes down to a few specific things. For example, in the Western United States, we have one basic grid, in the Eastern United States we have another grid and of course, we have Texas, which we can talk about later. There is a dividing line between the Eastern and Western grid, which has got seven, what we call, back to back ties because the frequency of the grid in the East and the frequency of the grid in the West are very different. Those ties use technologies so that we can accommodate the difference in frequency. My belief is most of those technologies are from the 1980s. In fact, not just my belief, my knowledge is, those ties across the Eastern Western interconnection are old technology, but they're really valuable technologies as we saw three weeks ago during Winter Storm Uri, so we should be thinking about upgrading those.

Mark Gabriel: 

We've got a great resource down in the desert, Southwest by Lake Mead, by Hoover Dam. It's the Mead substation, the second largest substation in the United States. And I only say that because I don't know what the first is and nobody argues about number two. But it is a perfect place to expand because we could bring wind from Wyoming, the Eldorado Valley is a hotbed for solar utility scale solar, and it hooks right to Southern California. And then the third piece that in my dream world, there's something called the Intertie project, which runs from the Pacific Northwest by our sister organization, the Bonneville Power Administration, all the way down to Los Banos in California, but has a 285 mile gap and then picks up again in Arizona. And if you fill that gap, you could literally go from the Pacific Northwest in a giant loop through California, cross Arizona, back up into the middle part of the United States. So those are real practical ways to think about things that could be done for the grid.

Jason Price: 

Yeah. And you've written a lot about the Mead substation and the Intertie, but what is preventing this from moving forward?

Jason Price: 

If you look at the history of this utility business, which I have, and you can all read in my book, Visions for a Sustainable Energy Future, if you look at the history, this used to be a very vertically integrated business. A utility owned the generation, the transmission, the distribution, and the meters. It was a very clean, clear model. Sam Insull developed it back in the 1910 timeframe. And so it was a regulated business. You could build an asset, invest in an asset and then get a rate of return over a number of decades. Well, back in the 90s and early 2000s, we de-laminated the business. I don't generally say deregulated, but by de-lamination, I mean, we split apart transmission, distribution, generation and the consumer. So the question of who pays and who gains is really at the core of the question that you asked. The question really is who's going to commit to the payments to build all of this stuff. And how do you do this in a fair and an equitable manner?

Mark Gabriel: 

And that's the challenge today, with the uncertainty that existed in this business, with utilities not sure if they're going to even have customers in the traditional fashion, it is hard to invest a significant amount of money in an asset such as transmission, which could last 30 or 40 or even 50 years. So filling that gap of financing, filling the gap of getting the permit is a lot easier, believe it or not, than getting someone to stand up, raise their hand and say, "I'm willing to commit to 30 year uptake agreement for power." In the case of the Western Air Power Administration, there's a project that was started in 2007. I only got here 2013, we're in 2021, and the project has got the permits, it's got the rights of way, we have a loan program that they could take advantage of, I personally signed the record of decision in 2015 and yet no one's willing to stand at the other end of the line and raise their hand and say, "We will take the power. We will make the commitment."

Jason Price: 

Interesting. All right. So the grid is changing in ways it has never done before, new technologies, new methods of connecting. You get distributed energy, intermittent renewables, smart meters, and more. So how do you see the role of WAPA evolving as the entire sector changes?

Mark Gabriel: 

This is really an excellent question. I believe that organizations like WAPA and quite frankly, other transmission-based organizations are really going to become network providers. Just as you think about telecommunications today or any of the connections that we have, it doesn't matter whether you're on a telephone, an iPad, a cell phone, a ring device, an Alexa device, they all connect to a network. And I believe over time, the transmission system will be that network and will be that key element. Now, embedded in all of that is the technology that's going to be necessary to manage the myriad of things that you listed out there. I'm old enough to remember when we first plugged our computers into RJ 11 connectors in the wall only to find the telephony system overwhelmed with the number of people plugging in. And it took a generation of technology to get people to be able to understand that, wait a second, yes, it's a telephone line, but it's really a communications' lifeline.

Mark Gabriel:  

We're going to face the same thing. In WAPAs case, we run control centers in multiple parts of the United States, which were used to the history of big hydro plant or a coal plant, putting it on the line, going to an end customer. The day we have to figure out, gee, how are we going to manage that battery that's being connected? Gee, how do we figure out this community solar that's hooked to us? And oh, by the way, as we saw in California last summer, when it gets really hot, the solar output isn't high enough, so we have to quickly supplement with other types of generation. So it's really, it's going to be, from my perspective, a network future with a lot of built-in intelligence at the back end of that. And that's really the critical issue that we face today, because I'll go back to the piece I mentioned before, which is who pays and who gains and try to resolve that.

Mark Gabriel: 

It will take legislation, it will take lots of agreement and I will say, candidly, will take people who understand that running a utility is running a giant machine and it's not being run simply for the benefit of one type of technology or another.

Jason Price: 

Mark, lets change gears for a moment. You've championed the cause of social equity and all grid related decisions. It's not always obvious how decisions about the grid can affect communities for both good and bad outcomes. Can you take a moment and talk to us about social fairness and justice and how it comes into play? The decisions WAPA has to make?

Mark Gabriel: 

Yes, certainly. And I point out it's not just WAPA. I think every utility executive and every regulator and every State has to wrestle with this issue. Let's take solar panels for example, of which I'm a big proponent. Solar panels today are aimed at consumers who have the money or the financial wherewithal to put them on their homes. They are generally homeowners. They are folks who are in a certain segment of society. They still connect to the main grid. And this is a huge philosophical orientation because today the kilowatt-hour is being used less and less by a certain set of people. And at least as much or more by other folks who may not be financially able to afford a solar panel or battery storage or a Tesla or any one of the devices that we see as the technology future.

Mark Gabriel: 

So there's a question to me personally, about social equity. I look at things like microgrids, which I think have a fabulous opportunity, particularly for businesses and commercial operations that need a high quality of regular power. But I think about the 28% of Americans that do not own their own homes, that live in rental houses. I think about the fact that the average family of four in America makes $52,000 a year and want to make sure that as we think about all these great technologies, that we are not creating an energy divide similar to, or even worse than the digital divide that we've seen through this horrible pandemic. And I believe it's critical for society to take that into account. If I am living in a community of rental houses in a low-income neighborhood and I look across the river and there's a microgrid that is supporting a wealthier community, what does that say about society? And, oh, by the way, as the lower-income individual, I'm actually paying for the security of that microgrid because of the backup power requirements.

Mark Gabriel: 

A kilowatt-hour bears all of the costs in today's business model and as I've editorialized about before, I think the kilowatt-hour is dead, we need some new measure and way to manage it. It's not dead in terms of an engineering measurement, but what we've done is we've weighted the entire cost of the system from generation to transmission, to distribution, to the meter on a kilowatt-hour. And when fewer and fewer kilowatt-hours are being used by people who have the wherewithal to put in battery storage or to buy a Tesla, it, to me, smacks of social inequity. And I think we have to be really careful not to disenfranchise a huge segment of society who will never be able to afford a solar panel or never be able to afford battery storage.

Mark Gabriel: 

So it's really important that organizations like WAPA and all of them take that into account, recognize what should be done for the community at large, because let's remember the generation component of electricity is only one small slice of the entire cost of keeping the lights on. And we want to make sure we're not unfairly burdening those who can least afford it in today's economy.

Jason Price: 

Agreed. And even more important given the social unrest of this past year. Mark, I want to now talk about your perspective on leadership at the utilities. You've talked and written about the importance, creating the right type of culture and trusted leadership. Can you talk a bit more about the types of strategies you think are important for utility leaders to embrace? Is there a certain type of leadership you think is missing from the wider industry?

Mark Gabriel: 

Well, I'm not sure I want to indict the entire industry, but my experience, gained both running organizations and candidly being a consultant in organizations, is that people are looking for leadership that has vision and that takes that vision and translates it into something that's actionable. In the case of WAPA, we co-created, and I want to stress that word, co-created, a strategic roadmap to look out over 10 years. And the reason we did that was quite frankly, to create a big tent approach, to get folks engaged and not just our employees, but certainly our stakeholders, our extremely valuable and supportive customers. And then we drive that down the next level to really saying, okay, what are the tactical actions that we should be doing? And then one more level down to understand what does that mean for me? I jokingly say everybody's favorite radio station is WIIFM as in what's in it for me?

Mark Gabriel: 

Because of my experiences as a leader and as a follower is that people want to have a vision. They want to have a mission that they believe in not just a strategic plan that sits on the wall, not just a bunch of tactics and actions, but really how does that tie the spectrum together? In the case of WAPA, when I came here eight years ago, we had a, it has what I would describe as great bones, is that it had a great mission, it had really a solid backbone, but what it didn't have was people aligned behind the future. And to me, the difference between successful organizations and social organizations is having a shared vision and a shared direction, but it's got to be co-created. And I look out with some of the decisions that have been made in this industry, and I think that's been lacking. And quite frankly, I've worked with investor owned utilities, co-ops, munis, joint action agencies, and the ones that are the best are the ones where they've got a leadership team that understands its role in co-creating a future that support its end use customers, but also supports its employees.

Mark Gabriel: 

Look, we've all suffered this year in the pandemic, but ironically enough, I believe it's one of the reasons WAPA had one of its best years ever. We have executed 98% of our operations and maintenance budget. 96% of our capital budgets. Our safety numbers are in the top decile in the entire industry. Our asset management program is really the envy of most utilities. And it's not because of me. I jokingly say, "I'm the band leader who does not know how to play an instrument and I've got fabulous musicians though that make the music."

Jason Price: 

Yes, that's certainly is impressive. Well, congratulations on the great success so far with WAPA. Okay, Mark, now we're going to pivot slightly to what we're calling our lightning round. This is just for listeners to get to know you, the person, rather than you, the CEO. So your responses will just be one word or one phrase. Are you ready?

Mark Gabriel: 

I'm ready.

Jason Price: 

Okay. Here we go. Last book, magazine or article you read that really got you thinking?

Mark Gabriel: 

American Moonshot by Doug Brinkley.

Jason Price: 

What are you currently watching or streaming on TV?

Mark Gabriel: 

Both Lincoln and Stanley Tucci, Italy.

Jason Price: 

We're all a little travel starved, what was your last vacation?

Mark Gabriel: 

Went to New Zealand for three weeks on a red stag hunt.

Jason Price: 

Have you picked up any new hobbies or interests during the pandemic?

Mark Gabriel: 

Well, my interest is getting the pandemic over so I can get back out on the road with our customers and employees.

Jason Price: 

Any hidden talents you wish to share?

Mark Gabriel: 

I have an ability to remember quotes at random times for random needs.

Jason Price: 

And what are you most optimistic about?

Mark Gabriel: 

I'm most optimistic about the future of the energy business. It is the lifeline for the world. It is the lifeline for this country. And I truly believe that we are going to get to a future which is carbon free or really low carbon, but that's going to open up a whole series of things that are really exciting for future generations.

Jason Price: 

Very nice. As a reward Mark, we're going to give you the final word here. As you close out in talking to our utility audience, what message or takeaway do you hope you can impart? What should be the top priorities or areas of focus for the utility professional in the coming year and beyond?

Mark Gabriel: 

Accept change. Change is inevitable, of course, as folks have said, except from vending machines. And I really believe that the acceptance of change, a willingness to lean into these changes is going to make this the most exciting industry to be in over the next 10 to 20 years. And we all need to grab a hold of it and enjoy it.

Jason Price: 

Mark, it's been an absolute delight talking to you today. Thanks once again, for such a thought-provoking and inspiring conversation. These topics are surely going to remain relevant to our industry for quite a long time. So I'm eager to see if we see movement in the direction you suggest. Thank you once again for joining us today.

Mark Gabriel: 

Thanks so much for having me.

Jason Price: 

You can always reach Mark through the Energy Central platform where he welcomes your questions and comments. And once again, I'm your host Jason Price. Plug in and stay fully charged in the discussion by hopping into the community at energycentral.com. See you next time at the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast.

 

 


About Energy Central Podcasts

As a reminder, the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast is always looking for the authors of the most insightful articles and the members with most impactful voices within the Energy Central community to invite them to discuss further so we can dive even deeper into these compelling topics. Posting twice per month (on the second and fourth Tuesdays), we'll seek to connect with professionals in the utility industry who are engaging in creative or innovative work that will be of interest to their colleagues and peers across the Energy Central community. Some podcasts may be a continuation of thought-provoking posts or discussions started in the community or with an industry leader that is interested in sharing their expertise and doing a deeper dive into hot topics or issues relevant to the industry.

The Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast is hosted by Jason PriceCommunity Ambassador of Energy Central. Jason is a Business Development Executive at West Monroe, working in the East Coast Energy and Utilities Group. Jason is joined in the podcast booth by the producer of the podcast, Matt Chester, who is also the Community Manager of Energy Central and energy analyst/independent consultant in energy policy, markets, and technology.  

If you want to be a guest on a future episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast, let us know! We’ll be pulling guests from our community members who submit engaging content that gets our community talking, and perhaps that next guest will be you! Likewise, if you see an article submitted by a fellow Energy Central community member that you’d like to see broken down in more detail in a conversation, feel free to send us a note to nominate them.  For more information, contact us at community@energycentral.com. Podcast interviews are free for Expert Members and professionals who work for a utility.  We have package offers available for solution providers and vendors. 

Happy listening, and stay tuned for our next episode! Like what you hear, have a suggestion for future episodes, or a question for our guest? Leave a note in the comments below.

All new episodes of the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast will be posted to the relevant Energy Central community group, but you can also subscribe to the podcast at all the major podcast outlets, including:


Thanks once again to the sponsors of this episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast: West MonroeEsriAnterix, and ScottMadden

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