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back to article Solar undercuts coal in New Mexico

Bloomberg is reporting something of a world first: a solar facility in Macho Springs, New Mexico, is planning to sell its energy to the grid substantially below the price of coal-fired power. The facility is under construction by First Solar, the news agency reports, and its customer is El Paso Electric. First Solar expects the …

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FAIL

I wonder how much subsidy they will get to enable that, and how much the cost of electricity will rise when it becomes clear they still need the coal plant running all day to take up the slack at sunset..

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Anonymous Coward

Typical anti-renewable ignoramus

Hey knobhead, how about you do a little research on the project first? It's part of their peaker capability. You know, peaking, the stuff that coal plants are really inefficient at.

It's always entertaining when people are so determined to hate they don't bother with facts.

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WTF?

Indeed, the peakiest peak load in the deserty S.W. US is hottest, high summer, mid afternoon - early evening. Hence the "brownouts"... so they'll still need a grown-up supply for that early-evening/sunset part of those peaks. Sboze the things could provide a quick early-peak stop-gap while the proper coal/gas fired steam turbines spool up.

More a testament to the power of the subsidy than any interesting technological development though.

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Linux

Clueless rubes from somewhere else...

Peak time in the evening? Are you kidding? Peak time is going to be in the middle of the day when you've had the sun up long enough to bake the landscape. By the time evening rolls around, things are actually starting to cool off a bit.

Peak time is going to be when the Sun is cooking you because all of the rubes from back east have built dwellings and offices that aren't adapted to the climate and they're all blasting their ACs.

Daytime AC is going to be the biggest power drain on the system by far.

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Facepalm

Re: Clueless rubes from somewhere else...

No, not "kidding" at all.

There are a couple of flaws to your musing:

"when you've had the sun up long enough to bake the landscape" is significantly after "the middle of the day". In fact, with a good hot, humid airflow from Mexico dangerous temperatures can persist well into the evening... think 10 or 11pm!

"By the time evening rolls around" people are starting to arrive at their sun-baked hothouses and are cranking on/up the AC.

The typical critical period is 4pm to 6pm and in extreme heat it can and frequently does extend an hour or two beyond that.

Care to read something on the topic rather than guess?

www.20percentwind.org/report/Chapter4_Transmission_and_Integration_into_the_US_Electric_System.pdf

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Boffin

Re: Clueless rubes from somewhere else...

Take a look at the California ISO website sometime during late summer and pay special attention to the solar output versus statewide load. Solar production peaks at 12 Noon, where peak load typically occurs at 6PM. This is not exactly news as I heard a PG&E engineer caution solar power enthusiasts about the time difference between peak solar product and peak power system load circa 1975.

There have been proposals for solar thermal plants using molten salts as both a heat transfer mechanism and thermal storage mechanism, permitting several hours of electric energy production after sunset. Another work-around is to redesign structures to have a higher thermal mass, run the A/C like crazy when the sun is shining and using the stored "cool" after sunset.

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There's a lot of progress in using compressed air storage to act as a battery or buffer for energy sources like solar \ wind etc. It's pretty cheap and a lot better than the whole pumping between two lakes up and down a mountain approach.

Of course they still need coal or alternate methods, but that doesn't mean they cannot use solar, in general electricity use is highest during the day, industry at work, people at work \ home \ school etc rather than being asleep. Solar will take some of the pain off traditional plants allowing better scaling and reducing the need to invest in new traditional infrastructure. Why the hating on solar? It's not THE solution, but it is part of it.

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FYI http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compressed_air_energy_storage

70% efficiency isn't perfect, but 70% of the excess is better than 0%.

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Devil

They may not need any

It is in New Mexico so they may not need any. Solar is quite good if you put it in the right location. It will suck royally if it is at New (or old) England latitudes and average cloud cover levels. New Mexico or anywhere in the tropical desert belt around the worlld- not so much.

For example, there is a substantial body of circumstantial evidence brewing up that recent French interest and interventionism in Africa is related to the idea of making Sahara into one enormous Solar collector.

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Boffin

Re: Clueless rubes from somewhere else...

"There have been proposals for solar thermal plants using molten salts as both a heat transfer mechanism and thermal storage mechanism, permitting several hours of electric energy production after sunset."

Not just proposals.

IIRC 5 or so of them were built. Smallish to be sure (I'm thinking 1MW up to 100MW?) in the early 80's

The molten salt did store and release the heat.

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Re: Clueless rubes from somewhere else...

There are also plants in the US and Spain that generated heat after dark.

Unfortunately the tech took a bit of a credibility hit when it was discovered a great deal of the Spanish generation was coming from running diesel generators at night.

Yeah I know, diesel is technically a form of stored sunlight, but its not really solar power as we know it :-)

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Typical anti-renewable ignoramus

Or equally when they ignore the fact that with solar you still need to run conventional generation to cover the times when solar does not generate sufficiently and you still want to be able to use electricity!

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Re: Clueless rubes from somewhere else...

"Peak time in the evening? Are you kidding? Peak time is going to be in the middle of the day...Daytime AC is going to be the biggest power drain on the system by far."

Not an expert on usage patterns in New Mexico, but in Western countries peak usage is always at night. The reason is that people aren't home during the day, and the peak occurs when everyone gets home from work, fires up the big screen TV/aircon/lighting/oven etc

Sorry if reality doesn't match your opinion...

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Clueless rubes from somewhere else...

As soon as you need to store solar it just gets even more expensive.

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Boffin

Easy solution to the noon power 6pm demand

Just put the solar plant 6 hours west and run a cable.

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Anonymous Coward

Apart from the cost of building / running the plant. All it means is extra cost so you generate the power now when you don't need it - lose at least 30% then can use it later. We have pumped water stations like Dinorwig (sol) to do things like this but solar has a long way to go before it can contribute sensibly to the base load.

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Re: Typical anti-renewable ignoramus

"Hey knobhead, how about you do a little research on the project first? It's part of their peaker capability. You know, peaking, the stuff that coal plants are really inefficient at."

Peak is actually at night, you know, the stuff that solar plants are really inefficient at?

"It's always entertaining when people are so determined to hate they don't bother with facts."

Even better when they show their ignorance of the facts and insult others with childish names for actually being right eh "knobhead"?

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Thumb Up

"how much subsidy they will get to enable that"

If I read the article correctly, Bloomberg said that it did not calculate any subsidies, and therefore the actual cost of electricity from this solar plant is less than coal-fired electricity.

"still need the coal plant running all day to take up the slack at sunset"

Hot places like New Mexico, bsides being ideal places to locate a solar plant, also have much higher daytime consumption than nighttime, because major consumer of leccy is air conditioning mostly consumed during the day and little to no heating is required at night.

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Thumb Up

The 'peak' time issue is essentially just a storage problem. Build a big enough capacity solar plant to be able to capture and store 24 hours worth of power in 12-15 hours, plus some extra for conversion inefficiencies.

compressed air storage is one option, another is electolyse water to get hydrogen and then burn it during teh night (12-hour storage cycle will minimise leakage losses), or else split CO2 and water to produce some form of petrol to burn at night (once you burn only what you produce, it's CO2 neutral)

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Facepalm

Comparison??

@myself - OK, I re-read this line : "While noting that the plant attracts US federal incentives, Bloomberg states it did not include these in its models because they vary widely between different locations"

...and although it's not very clear, I think maybe this means Bloomberg didn't include subsidies to the COAL plant in it's model? Meaning that the comparison is between the (subsidised?) price of solar compared to the assumed unsubsidised cost of coal, when in fact, the coal actually IS subsidised??

That's nor comparing apples to oranges, it's comparing apples to koala bears

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Compressed air heating and cooling

Compressing air heats it on compression and freezes on decompression. If the main electric demand after dusk is aircon, combining compressed air tanks with large building thermal design could enable some of the waste energy to reduce evening aircon demand, by making use of the cool decompressed air for extra cooling, resulting from use of previously compressed air to generate electricity during the evening.

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Mushroom

similar peak in South Africa

At a similar climatic zone the peak is early evenings in summer - get home, switch airco on and start cooking the evening meal while others are still at the office with aircondition still on.

icon for what it feels like without airconditioning

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Re: Typical anti-renewable ignoramus

you really think it's a good idea to depend on an completely unreliable way of production to supply peak demand? this IS typical renewable misinformation, as again it fails to take into accout the cost of the subsidies, the major increase in transport cost, and the enourmous cost of backup-capacity.......We're not helping ANYONE least of all the environment by systematically lying to ourselves....

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Childcatcher

Re: Clueless rubes from somewhere else...

Not an expert on usage patterns in New Mexico... fires up the big screen TV/aircon/lighting/oven etc

I lived there for a few years. Usage patterns are not so different from other places except for cooling, which is more dependent on water than AC. Most households use swamp coolers, which are basically very large humidifiers.

The state, especially the southern half, is well suited to solar power. Many houses use solar for heating water. It's no coincidence the state flag features a sun symbol.

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What sort of quantity of water are you getting the hydrogen from? Because while New Mexico has loads of sunlight (for some portion of each day at least), water is relatively scarce. Using clean air as a storage medium is probably better if significant quantities are needed, as everyplace has that except for certain big cities such as Beijing and Los Angeles.

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Pirate

Re: Easy solution to the noon power 6pm demand

>Just put the solar plant 6 hours west and run a cable.

A few hundred miles SE of Japan then. Upvoted for tickling my joke detector.

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Happy

Re: Easy solution to the noon power 6pm demand@ Natalie Gritpants

"Just put the solar plant 6 hours west and run a cable."

As there's only four hours between the eastern seaboard and California, I think you'll find this idea a little challenging. Consulting a globe may assist you in your future planning projects.

And even with some contribution to New York et al by California and Nevada, you've still got 70% of the US population to address. Like most "renewables", solar works in some places some of the time, but renewables have yet to be offered as a genuine package that can meet normal energy demand. When they can do that at any reasonable scale, without fossil fuel support, I'll agree that they count as renewable. As they stand they're two things at once: Eco-bling for the hard of thinking, and subsidy farms for big corporations. Either way they put up customers bills, but don't make much difference to emissions.

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Re: ...redesign structures to have a higher thermal mass...

That isn't the only way to 'pull this off'. If your A/C uses a cold water chiller, and the space is available a well insulated pool of chilled water acts as a "cold storage" bank. Run the A/C flat out during the day, chilling the pool, and then use that stored cold to cool the building during the nighttime hours.

In areas where the cost of power can be cheaper at night (due to TOU1 incentives), running the chillers at night to create the cold water pool can be cost effective. But, it is only one strategy; and one that may not work for all locations/building conditions.

1 TOU: Time Of Use

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Anonymous Coward

@Chet Mannly Re: Typical anti-renewable ignoramus

Oh for god's sake.

I _know_ that peak demand happens later in the day. E.g. my time-of-use billing has Peaks 7am to 12pm and 4pm to 8pm with the 12pm to 4pm Shoulder.

For you and all the other ignorant twats here's a primer. Electricity generation is divided into

a) Baseload: plants running at a steady rate to meet an underlying level of expected demand. Done with generation methods suited to constant running. E.g. coal, nuclear, hydro.

b) Peakers: plants that deal with variable load above baseload and the second-to-second variations in demand. These plants usually are able to vary generation relatively easily. E.g. natural gas and hydro (there's hydro again, which is another reason why the Chinese were so keen to build that huge hydro dam).

So, when they said that the solar was part of the peaker capability they mean that it isn't going to displace coal baseload. It can't and it isn't even though the original (and very wrong) knobhead thought (very wrongly) that's what it was intended to do. Instead it's part of the peaker capacity.

Since it's solar and therefore its output cannot be relied on its capacity would need ot be matched by one or more other fossil peakers. Like the UK, New Mexico's marginal electricity is natural gas. The economics of electricity generation mean that the cheaper ones are used first (e.g. baseload and then modern peakers), then gradually they run less efficient, more expensive plants as demand rises. Since the solar generates during the day while demand is high (even if not peak) it will be used to displace relatively high cost electricity that would have been generated by other peakers. (The same peaker displacement happens with wind, which is why the Texas' natural gas grid share had a noticeable drop).

It's one thing to question subsidies (even though the article gave low subsidy-free pricing) or to point out that renewable capacity needs to be matched by fossil capacity, but it's another thing entirely to suggest that it was an attempt to replace baseload coal generation when basic fact-checking would show that it's clearly not the case. But knobhead haters don't do fact-checks.

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Anonymous Coward

@dwieske Re: Typical anti-renewable ignoramus

Aarrgghh. Stop it. Stop it.

They aren't relying on unreliable renewables. There's always going to be fossil back-up capacity. In fact, even without renewables there's fossil back-up capacity, because unless you want brownouts you need to have excess capacity. Then since demand is highly variable a lot of the capacity spends its time idle.

The aim with renewables is to benefit from reduced consumption of fossil fuels and a reduction in pollution. Ideally that'd be at no additional cost, which is why there's so much money pumped into research (directly and indirectly).

Most current targets are no more than 20% renewables since that's considered to be a level that wouldn't require significant advances in storage technology, partly because the grid can only handle so much variability and partly because any time you have storage it adds cost.

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Megaphone

I'm "planning" to be rich someday...

Let's see....

Purchase price not stated, and certainly not compared to whatever outlay Element Power might have already spent. So good possibility purchase was at a fire-sale price.

Land for plant is leased from the state. Wonder how much (little) that price is? And how many other power plants has the state fostered with low rents?

Plant hasn't been built yet. Will be built with a particular technology which _should_ be cheaper than previous technologies. _Should_ produce at a certain rate. So true costs and production are all future topics for realization.

And which future reality might inform a new pleading for a _higher_ proposed rate per kilowatt-hour at a future point.

But hey, it makes a great press release now, doesn't it? Who's going down when the reality is not as advertised? Not the rates fershur.

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Re: I'm "planning" to be rich someday...

Another way to get rich is to sell your commodity product at 5.79 cents when your competitors are selling it at 12 cents. Wait, how does that make sense, in an undistorted and free market?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: I'm "planning" to be rich someday...

Makes no sense - if the competition were offering the same product for 12c why would you price yours at less than half that - answer is it's probably not the same product / as reliable.

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false comparison

A cheap coal-seam gas plant would work out at about the same price - around 6c/kwh, but clearly, "around" is going to cut it when doing actual price comparison: this looks slightly better.

Another comparison would be with Coal+carbon capture, or Gas+carbon capture. They haven't done that comparison, coal+carbon capture would be much more than 12c/kwh.

What they have done is compare the new price with an old price, which is a historically interesting comparison (show the new price compared to what you used to pay), but not one you can use for making investment decisions.

Anyway, more of the USA is paying less than 12c/kwh to produce coal-seam gas fired power now, and the coal price is dropping as a result. This means that even the coal-fired power generation is dropping in price.

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Re: false comparison

"A cheap coal-seam gas plant would work out at about the same price - around 6c/kwh"

A cheap CSG plant would certainly cost that much - this solar plant would *sell* electricity for that much if it got built.

In this case I highly doubt the solar selling price remotely matches their costs unless there are some absolutely spectacular subsidies involved, or they have made a cold-fusion level advance in solar technology that no one else knows about...

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FAIL

false

I highly doubt whether this is really the 'first' time a solar power station sells cheaper than coal. But far more important - price doesn't tell everything. In fact, in electricity, price doesn't tell much - the conditions do.

There is a HUGE difference between a contract specifying 'the seller guarantees to deliver up to x MW upon request within 15 minutes' and a contract specifying 'the buyer promises to buy whatever is available, when it is available'. Wake me up when the first solar-powered plant signs a contract of the first type, cheaper than coal.

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Anonymous Coward

Coal cannot do that either

Coal plant (even the most modern boiler designs) has at least an hour worth of ramp-up/ramp-down. It is still better than nuclear where that is in the "day" range but not in 15 mins increment.

15 mins is gas and hydroelectric territory.

In any case, the 15 mins (trading closes 30 mins before delivery) is a product of a specific regulatory regime which was originally rigged to favor gas - the UK wholesale market. Other markets do not operate in 15 mins increments and allow for real-time delivery instead of futures pre-negotiation.

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Re: Coal cannot do that either

"Coal plant (even the most modern boiler designs) has at least an hour worth of ramp-up/ramp-down. It is still better than nuclear where that is in the "day" range but not in 15 mins increment."

Try 2-3 DAYS for coal to get to full output. Gas is 30 mins, Jet A1 (Avgas) turbines can be at full output in 15 minutes, but are used for peaking as they are unsurprisingly almost as expensive as renewables to run.

"15 mins (trading closes 30 mins before delivery) is a product of a specific regulatory regime which was originally rigged to favor gas - the UK wholesale market. Other markets do not operate in 15 mins increments"

You mean apart from markets throughout Europe, the US, Australia which all settle on a 30 minute basis?

Good research LOL

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Re: Coal cannot do that either

D'oh, that should be 15 minute basis obviously...

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Hydrogen

If everybody is driving round in cars powered by hydrogen fuel cells then it doesn't matter what time of day the electricity is generated, it can be used to create hydrogen.

If.

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El Reg need better researchers...

1 - this is a foundation customer agreement - ie the solar facility will be funded based on having this customer signed up, so they will do any deal they can to get it built, and make the lost money up on their other customers.

2 - residents in Montana pay just over 9c/kWh for electricity delivered, covering all network, retail and generation costs - so bloomberg is MILES off on the cost of coal, not even close

Apart from that its a good article

Oh hang on, that WAS the entire article...

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Silver badge

Re: El Reg need better researchers...

" 9c/kWh for electricity delivered, covering all network, retail and generation costs - so bloomberg is MILES off on the cost of coal"

the article states that Bloomberg's 12c comes from a model that does NOT calculate the subsidies given to coal. So it's quite possible that even in Montana's case, the costs are 12c (unsubsidised) and 9c (subsidised). Also, perhaps Montana has access to cheaper sources than coal? In teh Rockies, so maybe lots of hydro available? (just guessing here)

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Re: El Reg need better researchers...

Montana gets about 60% of its power by burning local coal which comes in huge, flat beds and is very low cost. Another third comes from hydropower.

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Holmes

re: clueless rubes

"... when you've had the sun up long enough to bake the landscape. By the time evening rolls around, things are actually starting to cool off a bit."

As a resident of a so cal desert area, I can assure you that after baking under a broiling sun for most of the day, the landscape then spends most of the night releasing that heat. The heat doesn't just 'disappear' when the sun goes down.

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Re: re: clueless rubes

"The heat doesn't just 'disappear' when the sun goes down"

This is a genuine question - no, really, I promise it is. I am not an expert nor pretend to be.

Does the heat stored in the soil / sand that is being released in the evening too help a solar plant somehow? I would have thought that it's only the sun rays that are converted into energy. But I am often wrong, so...

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Bronze badge

Re: re: clueless rubes

Nothing to do with solar power, just pointing out that 'things cool off when the sun goes down" is incorrect.

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Boffin

Re: re: clueless rubes

Does the heat stored in the soil / sand that is being released in the evening too help a solar plant somehow? I would have thought that it's only the sun rays that are converted into energy. But I am often wrong, so...

You are correct, it doesn't help the power plant at all. Solar power requires the short-wavelength (500nm) photons that come from a very hot thing, i.e. the Sun. The long-wavelength photons (10 um) that are emitted by the ground are essentially energy that is already more-or-less in thermal equilibrium with its surroundings. The second law of thermodynamics means that you can not get it to do any useful work.

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Silver badge
Stop

Stop the zealotry forthwith!

Seems like everybody in here needs to sell some deeply held belief. Come on guys, it's not Religion, it's economics and ecology. If you don't like some statement or article, then do some proper research and disprove it, don't just throw opinions around. Just because you are smarter than everybody else doesn't make your statements true.

... Kids ...

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Anonymous Coward

We've had wind and solar power, like forever.

Yet mysteriously the industrial revolution only happened when we dug coal out of the ground.

Go figure.

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Re: We've had wind and solar power, like forever.

And fortunately, as all proponents of hydrocarbons know for an absolute fact, oil/coal will NEVER run out and can only get cheaper as time goes on. So there is no point whatsoever at looking for any alternatives.

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