As local governments seek to increase solar development in their communities, it is important to consider the financing that is available at the federal, state, and local level, and how communities can play an active role in supporting the finance of solar PV systems. This section of Solar Energy: SolSmart’s Toolkit for Local Governments covers the ownership options for solar energy systems, including third-party ownership and direct ownership, and the various benefits and challenges of both. The section also covers the mechanisms available for local governments to increase the financing opportunities that are available for solar energy systems, including loan options, PACE financing, and Solarize campaigns. Finally, this section offers specific financing tools local governments can utilize to increase solar adoption in low-to-moderate income (LMI) households.
Today, American homes and businesses typically have several options for financing new solar energy systems. These options vary among states and communities, and there are a wider range of financing options available in some parts of the country. In many communities, consumers have the flexibility to either own a solar system outright or finance it through third-party ownership options, including leases and power purchase agreements (PPAs). Federal, state, and local tax credits are available to reduce the cost of solar projects for either consumers or third-party owners.
Local governments can make a difference by expanding the financing options available in their communities. Along with an overview of the most common financing mechanisms for solar energy within the United States, this section explores ways that state and local governments can directly administer their own loan programs.
For communities looking to expand solar energy deployment, third-party ownership can provide access to solar energy for residents and businesses without some of the upfront costs. Under this model, the developer or installer acts as a third party that installs solar energy at little or no cost to the customer. The third party continues to own and maintain the system while receiving payments from the customer over the lifetime of the system (usually a 20-year term). Under this model, the third party developer or installer is responsible for maintaining the system, but also receives the benefits from any applicable tax incentives.
Third-party ownership and direct ownership models offer different benefits and tradeoffs for residents, businesses, or local governments, as outlined in Table 1.
Table 1: Direct Ownership and Third-Party Ownership Comparison
The two most common third-party ownership models are power purchase agreements (PPAs) and solar leases.
Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs). Under a PPA, the customer enters into a contract with the third-party owner of the solar energy system to purchase electricity at a set rate per kWh. This electricity rate is fixed for a long-term period (usually 20-25 years) which is typically below the market rate. PPAs are not allowed in all states, but if available, they can help spur solar deployment by reducing capital costs for consumers (Figure 1).
Figure 1: State Policies Regarding Third-Party Power Purchase Agreements
Solar Leases. Solar leases present another third-party ownership model; they are available in some states where PPAs are not allowed. Under a lease model, the customer makes lease payments to the third-party solar system owner in exchange for all of the system generated electricity. The customer then uses the electricity (or stores it, if the system includes storage), selling excess electricity back to the grid.
The third-party solar installer typically funds the investment through tax equity. That is, the installer secures investors to fund the project in exchange for a return on their investment and the ability to claim the tax credit. Tax equity allows developers to avoid, reduce, or share the project costs, lessening their financial risk.
Third-party ownership options can help expand the local solar market by reducing up-front costs for residents, businesses, and municipalities. A third-party model offers competitive pricing and reduces the complexity of owning and maintaining a system. Third parties can claim tax incentives unavailable to non-taxable entities, who can then pass on savings through more competitive electricity rates or lease payment options.
Another option for residents and businesses is direct ownership of a solar PV system. Under direct ownership, consumers either purchase the solar energy system outright or seek out loans to finance the payment. Direct ownership recently surpassed PPAs as the most common financing model for residential systems (for commercial systems, PPAs continue to be more common). Solar presents a unique value proposition for local lenders, who can help residents and businesses spread the cost of the system over periodic payments.
The following presents details on various lending options banks use for solar, as well as the benefits and barriers of solar lending.
Direct ownership can provide unique benefits that are not available through third-party financing options. Most notably, direct ownership of a solar system allows the owner (either an individual or a business) to claim applicable federal or state tax credits (instead of passing on the benefits to a developer). Direct ownership often offers system owners a higher return on investment than if they financed a system through a PPA or lease. In order to take advantage of these benefits, however, consumers need access to low-interest loans.
In many ways, solar lending differs from traditional loans due to the function of solar energy and the incentives available. A solar energy system will lead to long-term electricity cost savings for the customer, helping offset the cost of a loan. Additionally, many states offer performance-based incentives based on the energy generation of a solar system. These additional revenue streams can help residents and businesses meet repayment and interest costs, leading to a lower risk profile for lenders. Lenders can help reduce some of the barriers to direct ownership by partnering with local solar installation companies. Often, these partnerships result in a solar PV loan product that offers a competitive rate.
The two most common types of loans available from banks and financial institutions are home equity loans and unsecured loans. Importantly, lenders do not necessarily have to develop loan options specifically for solar projects. Instead, they can make financing available through existing loan offerings.
Home Equity Loans. One of the more traditional local lending options available to homeowners is a home equity loan or home equity line of credit. To take advantage of this option, a homeowner will have to either refinance an existing mortgage or take out a second mortgage to cover the cost of the solar energy system.
Unsecured Loans. Homeowners that do not qualify for secured loans (or do not want to use their homes as collateral) may access unsecured loans. Many lenders offer unsecured loans for solar PV systems at a range of interest rates and payback periods. Unsecured loan products typically come with higher interest rates than secured loans, because they are not secured by specific assets.
Local governments can assist with solar financing in a number of ways, including:
States, local governments, and utilities can encourage the growth of solar markets by working with lenders to expand loan options. State and local governments can also administer loan programs directly, and they may be able to offer more favorable terms than a traditional bank loan, such as lower interest rates and fees.
Revolving Loan Funds. Establishing a revolving loan fund is one way that state and local governments, institutions, or utilities can provide financing incentives for solar. To do so, the first step is to identify a pool of capital to draw from in lending the money. For example, a local government may receive money from state bonds, tax revenue, or other identified funds. Once the revolving loan fund is established, the money can be used to finance solar energy systems. As loans are repaid, the money is used to finance additional solar projects.
Revolving loan funds do have limitations. Because they often offer lower interest rates and use public capital, borrowers will need to have good credit and provide collateral to secure a loan. Also, once loans are made, the fund is often slow to replenish due to limited sources of capital, low- to no-interest rates, and loan terms that favor borrowers. However, these funds are often a good option for residents who do not want to take out a second mortgage to install solar.
In addition to financing assistance, there are several other ways local and state governments support solar development, including performance-based incentives, permit fee waivers, and tax incentives.
Local governments can offer performance-based incentives as a way to fund solar energy projects. Performance-based incentives provide payments based on the performance of a solar system — that is, how much energy a solar system produces. For example, the New York State established a MW Block Incentive Grant through the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority. This is a cash incentive that is provided to the developer and passed on to the resident, municipality, organization, or business. The incentive is set to decline over time as more solar energy systems are developed.
A local government can also offer grants for specific community stakeholders, such as low-to-moderate-income (LMI) consumers (see below). Other local rebates can help reduce the up-front cost of a solar system, allow the owners to reclaim a portion of their investment, or provide savings to third-party owners that are passed on to consumers.
Renewable Energy Fund: Boulder, Colorado
In 2006, the city of Boulder, Colorado (a SolSmart Gold community) established a Renewable Energy Fund. The fund is comprised of unrestricted sales and use taxes collected from the installation and sale of solar PV and solar thermal systems. Through this fund, Boulder established a Solar Rebate Program and a Solar Grant Program.
Residential solar projects are often subject to general building permit fees or specific fees for solar energy permits. Permitting fees can increase the upfront cost of a solar energy system for a developer or resident. Often, these fees are considered an important way to pay for the costs of reviewing and approving permits. However, most small-scale residential systems follow similar installation guidelines and may not require an onerous permitting process. Communities can also create permitting checklists, cross-train staff on solar PV, and take other steps to reduce the time and resources required for solar permitting. By streamlining the review process, a municipality can reduce or waive the permit fees for solar energy systems.
More information on streamlined permitting can be found in the “Solar PV Construction: Codes, Permitting, and Inspection” section of this toolkit. SolSmart has also developed a Simplified Solar Permitting Guide for communities to develop an efficient, streamlined permitting process.
In 2007, Hillsboro, Oregon (a SolSmart Gold community) participated in the Northwest Solar Communities Rooftop Solar Challenge. Through this program, the city identified permit fees as a potential barrier to residential solar development. The city worked to streamline its permitting process and reduce overhead, and since 2007 Hillsboro has waived permitting fees for solar PV systems.
Federal, state, and local tax incentives are available to assist with the purchase of solar energy for homes and businesses. For more detail on these policies, visit the Federal and State Context section of this toolkit.
The Federal Investment Tax Credit (ITC) is a tax credit on installation costs for residential and commercial solar energy projects, set at through the end of 2019. The ITC was reduced to 26% in 2020 and will step down to 22% in 2021. In 2022, the residential tax credit will expire and commercial solar energy projects will receive a 10% tax credit on installation costs.
Accelerated Depreciation is available to companies that claim the ITC for a commercial solar energy system, in order to deduct depreciation expenses over a five-year timeline. Under the Modified Accelerated Cost Recovery System (MACRS), a company can reduce its tax liability and increase the rate of return on solar projects.
State and Local Tax Incentives are available in many locations for residential or commercial projects. For example, Massachusetts offers a 15% Residential Renewable Energy Income Tax Credit for residential solar PV systems. Similarly, the New York Solar Tax Credit applies to 25% of annual solar expenditures for residential consumers, up to $5,000 over the system’s lifetime. For more information on local and state tax incentives, visit the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE).
In order to take advantage of these tax incentives, a consumer must directly own the solar energy project and must have taxable income. If a solar energy project is financed through a lease or PPA, the tax incentives go to the third party providing the lease. Municipalities and nonprofit organizations cannot obtain tax incentives because they do not have tax liabilities. Smaller commercial owners with lower profitability may not have enough tax liability to fully recognize the credit. However, even those entities that do not directly receive tax incentives often benefit from the lower overall project costs if a third-party owner can claim the tax savings.
Property assessed clean energy (PACE) financing was first developed in Berkeley, California, as a mechanism to make energy efficiency, renewable energy, and water conservation improvements accessible to a broader customer base. State-level PACE-enabling legislation is now active in 36 states and the District of Columbia, as shown in Figure 2, and PACE programs are rapidly expanding in many cities nationwide. As of May 2018, PACE had financed $5.1 billion in residential improvements and $887 million in commercial development. About a quarter of the commercial development and 37% of the residential improvements had been deployed for renewable energy. PACE-financed measures can include not only building improvements like standard renewable energy and energy efficiency measures (such as solar energy and heating and air conditioning), but also resiliency measures such as seismic retrofits, hurricane preparedness measures, stormwater management, roof and other structural replacements, and water conservation.
Figure 2: Status of PACE-enabling Legislation
PACE financing places an assessment or lien on a property to provide upfront financing for property improvements that are paid back through property taxes. The assessment replaces traditional debt service, which typically relies on a customer’s credit or other security interest and allows for an investment that remains with the property rather than the property owner. Property tax assessments have been widely used for infrastructure improvements such as sewer and gas line upgrades.
One of the key benefits of PACE is that projects are financed with long-term debt, so the payments on that debt are much lower than that of traditional financing. With typically low interest rates and long terms to minimize payment (typically 20 years or more), PACE presents an opportunity to overcome upfront cost barriers to financing building improvements. Consumers gain access to capital that is paid for over time through savings on utility bills. PACE financing can cover 100% of project costs, including legal, permitting, operation, and maintenance costs. Since projected energy savings typically exceed the debt service, PACE projects are cash-flow positive from day one with zero out of pocket expenses.
Municipalities typically develop PACE programs after their state passes enabling legislation. However, some states, such as Connecticut, have set up Green Banks to administer programs for their localities. Other states, such as California, have set up authorities that secure PACE services on behalf of local governments who wish to participate. When cities and counties develop their own program, they may administer it or choose contract with a firm, typically a nonprofit, to administer the program. The program administrator promotes the program and works with public officials and the private sector to make the program a success.
Solarize campaigns — also known as solar group purchases or solar aggregation programs — are another method of reducing the upfront cost of solar installations by taking advantage of discounted rates from bulk purchasing. Local governments or nonprofits can lead a Solarize campaign by working directly with one or two installers to recruit and install solar for a group of customers.
Larger-volume purchases help provide lower prices to customers than if purchased separately by individuals and businesses. Since installer customer acquisition costs are very high, the installer enjoys considerable savings by selling in bulk. Therefore, installers can often provide 10% to 20% savings to customers participating in a group purchase program.
Along with reducing upfront costs, the following is a summary of the benefits of Solarize campaigns.
In addition, municipalities benefit when a large number of similar PV systems are developed by the same installers. This market stability enables local governments to effectively streamline the permitting and inspection process. Having a number of similar PV systems in the community also helps inform fire and safety departments about local electrical systems.
While they are usually positive experiences for communities, Solarize campaigns can face challenges, which are summarized below.
Legitimacy. To be successful, a campaign should be led by an authority that is trusted within the community. The involvement of a state or local government or community organization can increase public confidence in a campaign. The public may be distrustful if the campaign is led solely by installers.
Timing. Since group purchase campaigns take place during a limited timeframe, they should take place during a time of year when it is easiest to reach customers. For example, campaigns can be targeted to match the highest energy-use season, and/or seasons when most potential customers are not on vacation.
Marketing. Each campaign will need to select an effective marketing strategy that is appropriate for the community. The cost and time commitment required will depend on what marketing model is chosen. Unique requirements for marketing to low-to-moderate income consumers must be considered, as these communities may have limited access to certain outreach mediums.
Difficulty hiring. If a Solarize campaign leads to rapid job expansion within a community, solar companies may face difficulties in filling new positions. Pairing a Solarize campaign with a local solar job training program is one solution that the Philadelphia Energy Authority has successfully implemented, in conjunction with their “Solarize Philly” campaign to meet increased demand for qualified solar talent, particularly installation.
Group purchasing programs can be conducted using several different models. All models, however, center around a similar process. Campaigns can be launched and/or led by three types of organizations: local or state governments, community groups, or installers.
For governments or community groups, the process generally works as follows:
(1) The leader of the Solarize campaign creates a team that suits the program needs. For example, a project manager may be hired to map out all necessary tasks and lead volunteers, technical advisers, and a steering committee.
(2) The team issues a Request for Proposal (RFP) and selects an installer for the campaign. An RFP is crucial for expediting the selection process and increasing price competitiveness. Communities should consider the following items when seeking an installer:
(3) One of the highest barriers to customer acquisition for solar companies is the lack of public awareness. The Solarize campaign team, in conjunction with the installer, runs marketing campaigns and workshops to engage homeowners and businesses. The marketing campaign will help increase awareness of solar technology, the installation process, and relevant policies and incentives. Marketing strategies may include:
(4) If customers are interested in installing solar and want to participate in the program, they can enroll to become part of the bulk purchase. Depending on the level of interest, prices may lower by tiers. For example, a group purchase order of 250 systems may cost less per system compared to a group purchase order of 150. If an installer is providing tiered pricing, this should be outlined in their proposal and can be used to help advertise the program.
(5) Although many customers may be interested in solar, some customers’ roofs may not be feasible for on-site generation, so site assessments are required before finalizing purchase orders. (Some roof limitations may include: structural integrity, age of the roof, roof orientation and tilt, roof shading, fire and safety regulations, and interconnection to the electrical grid.)
(6) If there is enough interest among qualifying households, individuals can then proceed to install solar through the bulk purchase order.
A campaign run by an installer is slightly different, as it eliminates the first two steps in the process (creating a team and issuing an RFP). However, this type of campaign may have lower price competitiveness and less collaboration among community organizations.
In 2016, the city of Somerville (a SolSmart Gold community) participated in Solarize Mass, a statewide program that encourages the adoption of small-scale solar through local Solarize campaigns. The community saw 115 new solar installations during the campaign, nearly doubling the number of installations in Somerville. Outreach strategies included informing and engaging the community at public events and venues (such as local festivals and markets) as well as installer kick-off meetings. Additional media activities included updating the city’s solar landing page to include information regarding the Solarize campaign, in addition to a solar feasibility map and generation calculator provided by the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC). The local government also partnered with community-based groups to raise awareness through word of mouth, and partnered with the neighboring city of Cambridge to coordinate outreach efforts.
Solarize Mass began as the result of a partnership between MassCEC and the Green Communities Division of the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources (DOER). The pilot program ran between 2011 and 2016 and included 63 communities within the state. The program is now in its ninth year and continues to this day. Solarize Mass used a similar model for Solarize Campaigns within all chosen communities, featuring grassroots educational campaigns driven by local organization and volunteer efforts. The state entities helped coordinate outreach, marketing, and education efforts in each respective community. Since 2011, the program has resulted in over 19,000 individuals expressing interest in solar, and over 3,500 residents and businesses signing contracts for more than 23.55 MW of solar capacity.
To increase solar participation and interest across the San Francisco Bay Area, 13 cities and counties in joined in 2015 for the Peninsula SunShares program. The program was organized by Foster City in partnership with the nonprofit Vote Solar. Although the city of Palo Alto and San Mateo County were the main target areas for the campaign, any residents from other Bay Area regions could sign up if they were within the service areas of the two chosen installers, Sunrun and SkyTech Solar. These two installers were chosen through an RFP process issued by Vote Solar and vetted by a volunteer employee evaluation committee comprised of participating organizations.
Through the program, qualifying households could receive a free site assessment and an installation proposal up to 15% less than an individually purchased solar system. System prices started at $3.50/Watt with Sunrun and $3.60/Watt with SkyTech. Multiple financing plans were available through the program, including direct purchasing, leasing models, and power purchase agreements. Pooling multiple cities and counties together allowed for a guaranteed bulk discount for all interested customers.
To date, middle- and higher-income families have been the primary beneficiaries of the growth in residential solar energy. Despite rapidly declining costs, low-to-moderate income (LMI) families have been far less likely to install solar. Outside of relatively limited solar pilot projects for LMI households, barriers such as limited access to credit, low credit scores, the inability to benefit from solar tax credits, and low levels of home ownership persist. It is important for local governments to take an active role to provide equal access to solar energy development.
Local governments can do a lot to make solar accessible to the entire community and create opportunities for LMI households to participate. There are several financing mechanisms that can be used to increase LMI access to solar, summarized below.
Direct Incentives in the form of subsidizing the price of subscriptions for community solar programs, subsidizing the cost of a solar installation, or offering direct cash payments to community solar programs that serve LMI customers.
Loan Loss Reserve Program in which public funds are held to cover potential losses that a loan provider may face if a customer defaults on a loan. This can decrease the risk of loan offers and increase access to solar loans for a greater range of credit scores.
On-Bill Financing/ On-Bill Recovery, which places loan payments directly onto customers’ electric bills. This method is less dependent on credit scores and is easier to understand, allowing communities to directly see utility bill savings from solar.
Revised Underwriting Criteria, which aims to either lower the minimum credit score threshold for a solar loan or utilize past bill-repayment history as a mechanism to determine customer eligibility.
Community solar offers a path for consumers to enjoy the benefits of solar energy without installing it on their own roofs. Many state and local governments are using community solar as a vehicle to increase access to solar for LMI households. One approach is to require the community solar developers to sign up a certain percentage of LMI customers. For example, some community solar projects in Colorado have included a 5% LMI requirement. Further, Maryland’s community solar pilot program includes carve-outs for up to 60 MW worth of projects that include LMI subscribers.
Another approach is to provide incentives and/or subsidies directly to LMI households so they can afford to participate in a community solar project. This can include grant funding to reduce the upfront subscription costs for LMI subscribers. In addition to the typical sources of grant financing (such as states and nonprofit organizations), other options include utilizing crowd-sourced capital, utility settlement funds, and federal energy assistance funds (including LIHEAP or weatherization funds, discussed below).
A third approach is to provide incentives to the developer to reduce the cost of a project and allow more LMI participation. There are many ways to provide these incentives, including grants, low- or no-interest loans, and higher solar renewable energy certificate (SREC) payments. In addition, local governments can provide access to a low- or no-cost site to build the project with expedited permitting. In partnership with the local utility, preferential treatment for interconnection to the grid can also lower project costs. Partner organizations, including local government agencies, can identify subscribers for community solar projects within LMI communities, thereby reducing customer acquisition costs.
For local governments, flexible anchor tenant structures are another option to encourage LMI subscriptions. Community solar projects commonly have one “anchor tenant,” a large subscriber who buys up to 50% of the output of the project. Local governments that serve as the anchor tenants can increase their subscription sizes on a temporary basis to cover any LMI households that drop out of the program unexpectedly. This reduces the risk of lower revenues for the developer while it searches for replacement subscribers, or until the original subscriber can resume making payments. Reserve accounts funded by a third party can function in a similar fashion to support turnover in LMI subscribers or cover for LMI households with temporary financial difficulties.
On behalf of 10 public housing complexes, the Saint Paul, Minnesota Housing Authority (SPHA) subscribed to Xcel Energy’s community solar program, generating 100% of the electricity for 1,600 tenants from solar. This will result in approximately $120,000 in savings per year for STPHA, which will be used to expand the city’s support for affordable housing.
For more information on community solar projects, view the SolSmart Issue Brief, “Expanding Solar Participation Through Community Solar.”
Another tool utilized by state and local governments to increase access to solar for LMI households is to install solar on affordable housing buildings. In these projects, the solar energy can be used to power either the common areas or individual households. These installations face many challenges, however, including how to set up metering within a building. For example, individual units may be responsible for utility bills, but the benefits of solar energy could go to a landlord.
California’s Multifamily Affordable Solar Housing (MASH) program addresses this challenge by providing more funding to projects that provide direct benefits to tenants, rather than simply reducing electricity loads in common areas. California also offers incentives for solar installations on single-family housing that meets low-income requirements under its Single Family Affordable Solar Housing (SASH) program. Another example is the Denver Housing Authority’s 2.5 MW project that involved small PV installations on 350 buildings. The finance plan for this project included power purchase agreements (PPAs), federal tax credits, and low-interest bonds. Massachusetts, through its Mass Solar Loan program, provides a number of credit support mechanisms for LMI families who borrow money through the program to install solar on their homes. These incentives include partial loan forgiveness upon system installation, an interest rate buy-down, and a loan loss reserve to encourage banks to lend to LMI homeowners.
Energy Assistance Programs provide potential funding sources for state and local governments to provide utility bill assistance and energy efficiency upgrades to low-income households. These include the federal Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) and the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Until recently, solar was too costly to include in such assistance programs. However, as the cost of solar has declined, it is now feasible to consider small solar systems as eligible energy saving measures, particularly in locations with above-average electricity costs. California ran a pilot program between 2010 and 2012 in which 1,482 low-income households received solar installations with funding from the state’s LIHEAP program. The state continues to provide assistance today through its Low Income Weatherization Program in partnership with the nonprofit GRID Alternatives. Colorado is the first state in the nation to receive approval from the U.S. Department of Energy to integrate rooftop PV in WAP funds.
SolSmart Webinar: How to Develop a Solarize Campaign
In this recorded webinar, we learn the basics of a successful Solarize campaign. Experts from Solar United Neighbors and the Philadelphia Energy Authority share how a Solarize campaign can keep more economic value in the community and be modified to enable participation by low-to-moderate income customers.
Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency
The North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center provides a comprehensive database of incentives and policies that support solar energy in the United States. This can help communities assess what financing options are available in their area.
EnergySage: Financing Your Solar Panel System
This webpage, published and updated frequently by EnergySage, provides resources on the options available to finance solar projects.
A nonprofit that seeks to promote Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing by providing leadership and support for a growing universe of PACE market participants. The website offers various resources, including a database of all the active PACE programs across the nation as well as those that are currently under legislation. It also provides market data and case studies of PACE programs in the U.S.
Low-Income Solar Policy Guide
This is a tool for policymakers, community leaders, and others who are working on solar access at the federal, state, and local levels. The resource provides best practice examples from across the country as well as descriptions of the policy tools that are available to increase solar access in LMI communities. GRID Alternatives and Vote Solar are the contributing partners to the Guide.
Low-and Moderate-Income Clean Energy Web Page
This program, run by the Clean Energy States Alliance (CESA), offers a multitude of resources for any key stakeholders seeking to advance LMI solar. Resources include webinars, guides, bi-monthly newsletters, forums for states to share their experiences, and best practices.
Rocky Mountain Institute’s e–Lab Leap
This is an initiative by the Rocky Mountain Institute dedicated to empowering and improving the lives of low-income communities in a clean energy future. Leap works with stakeholders at the local level such as government representatives, community representatives, and housing authorities to develop solutions that empower low-income households and communities to benefit from a clean energy future.
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