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Apple trees covered in snow following an October storm in the Kashmir valley. Waseem Andrabi / Hindustan Times via Getty Images

In another example of how the climate crisis threatens agriculture around the world, early snowfall has damaged Kashmir's apple harvest for the third year in a row.

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What Is Solar Energy & How Does it Work?

We walk you through the basics of solar power.

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Tim Robberts / Stone / Getty Images

For homeowners who are looking for clean energy solutions, solar power is utterly essential. But what is solar energy, exactly, and how does solar power work?

Solar energy is the energy emitted by the sun that reaches the earth's surface. In this article, we'll cover how it's converted into electricity that we use to power our lives, as well as discuss the biggest advantages and disadvantages of using solar energy.

The U.S. has one of the best climates for solar power in the world and is home to some of the best solar companies and manufacturers. So how should we take advantage of this natural, renewable energy we enjoy in such abundance? Let's dive in.

Solar Energy Definition

In its simplest form, solar energy is the heat and light released by the sun. Individual particles of sunlight are known as photons, and they carry high amounts of the sun's energy to Earth. In fact, during any given hour, the Earth receives enough solar energy to theoretically fuel our entire population's energy needs for one full year.

But where does all of this solar power actually come from? Well, like any other star, the sun is basically one big nuclear reactor. There are nuclear fusion reactions happening in the sun's core all the time, a process through which hydrogen atoms collide and fuse to create helium atoms.

This process produces an enormous amount of energy, as the sun fuses about 620 million metric tons of hydrogen every second.

Nuclear fusion is the process through which hydrogen atoms collide and fuse to create helium atoms.MARK GARLICK / Getty Images

That solar energy can be collected here on Earth via photovoltaic technology, which converts solar energy into electricity that can be used to supply power to a home or a business. Solar power currently represents 18% of the global energy economy, and it's rapidly gaining in popularity (and necessity), largely thanks to the falling costs of solar and a desire among governments and homeowners alike to reduce energy costs and carbon emissions.

Using Solar Power

You've likely heard the term "PV" associated with solar power, which as we've mentioned refers to photovoltaic technology used in most solar cells. Most commonly, PV cells are made with a silicon semiconductor due to its cost and abundance. Generally used for small-scale applications, such as residential solar systems or portable solar generators, PV represents the most common method of harnessing solar energy.

Another option, called solar thermal capture, is typically better suited to produce solar electricity on a larger scale, like in a power plant.

We'll focus more on the former, as it's the most common method.

Converting Solar Energy via Solar Panels

By installing solar energy systems made with solar photovoltaic cells, or PV cells, home and business owners can collect solar energy and convert it into electricity. Here's a breakdown of that process:

  1. The sun's photons reach the surface area of the solar panel, and through the photovoltaic effect, those photons excite and displace loose electrons within a solar cell.
  2. Solar panels are designed so that these displaced electrons flow toward metal plates that line the outside of the panel. This creates an energy current.
  3. This electric current within the solar panel is a direct current (DC), which has to be converted into an alternating current (AC) in order to be used as electricity for a home. Inverters convert the current from each panel.
  4. This AC electricity can then be channeled to the primary circuit board of your home, where it can be directed either into the home's electrical system as power or into a battery to be stored for later use. If your utility company has a net metering program, you can also send excess energy to your local power grid in exchange for energy credits.

Usable sunlight hits a solar cell, which sets off the photovoltaic effect.Alejomiranda / Getty Images

Solar PV is one of the best methods we have today for generating power on a large scale with a renewable, clean resource like solar energy.

Why Switch to Solar Energy?

The benefits of solar power go beyond just saving money on your energy bills; you can take complete control of your electricity use and energy efficiency, reducing or even eliminating your reliance on utility companies. Even more impactful, you can directly lower greenhouse gas emissions and your reliance on fossil fuels, which provides a number of tangible environmental benefits.

But are solar panels really worth it for homes and businesses? Let's walk through the pros and cons of solar energy.

Environmental Benefits of Solar Energy

The environmental benefits surrounding solar energy are perhaps the most well known:

  • Being a clean and renewable energy resource, collecting solar energy directly offsets carbon emissions and air pollution associated with burning fossil fuels like oil and gas.
  • Though not as well publicized, mining and burning coal, as well as fracking natural gas, require an extremely high volume of freshwater. Using solar energy rather than non-renewable resources contributes to healthier water systems by fighting water scarcity and acidification.
  • No matter which way you look at it, solar technology helps us reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and the companies that profit off of environmental degradation. Every single home that goes solar gives a small slice of power back to the people.

Financial Benefits of Solar Energy

There are also a number of financial perks that come with solar, including:

  • Solar energy use can reduce your monthly electric bills and, in some cases, eliminate those bills completely. This produces big cost savings over time.
  • When you buy solar panels, there are a number of tax credits, incentives and rebates available to offset startup costs, including some available at the federal level and some that are state-specific. More companies are adopting solar financing to increase accessibility.
  • Most residential and commercial solar systems will produce electricity for 20 to 30 years and require very little maintenance. This allows you to reliably budget your energy costs decades in advance rather than relying on power plants and public infrastructure, which is far less predictable.

Challenges of Solar Energy

Solar power is one of the best renewable energy sources available to us, but that doesn't mean it's perfect. Some of the most significant challenges to solar energy include:

  • The initial cost of solar panels is fairly significant, typically ranging between $10,000 and $20,000. Tax incentives and monthly utility savings can offset this cost, but paying these upfront costs just isn't an option for every homeowner.
  • Some homes aren't suited for solar. If your house is shaded by trees or other buildings, or you don't get enough exposure to the sun, then a home solar system may not work out.
  • If you live in an area where electricity is inexpensive, then the savings you get from a solar system may not be worth the cost and the hassle.
  • It's much better to deal with a broken solar panel than a leaky oil rig, but even solar panels have an impact. With well over a million panels in use nationwide, we'll have to address the system for recycling solar panels.

Is My Home Suitable for a Residential Solar Energy System?

The best way to determine whether your home is a good fit for solar electricity is to contact a solar installer in your area. A solar energy specialist can come to take a look at your home and give you a custom recommendation.

Generally speaking, solar energy is best suited for those who live in sunny areas, have plenty of surface area on a south- or west-facing roof and whose homes are unobstructed by trees or neighboring buildings.

What to Look for in a Solar Energy System

As you shop around for home solar systems, make sure to keep the following factors in mind (read our guide to purchasing solar panels for more information):

  • The efficiency of your solar panels, or how much sunlight they actually turn into electricity (the most efficient solar panels convert over 20%).
  • The capacity of your solar battery storage system.
  • Warranties and other protections for your home solar system.
  • The total number of panels you need to get the desired results.
  • The services offered by your solar installer (such as individual system design).

If you're interested in solar, it only takes 30 seconds to get a free, no-obligation quote. You could save up to $2,500 per year on utility bills and get a tax rebate all while reducing your carbon footprint. Use this tool or fill out the form below to get started.

FAQ: What is Solar Energy?

What is solar energy in simple words?

Solar energy, in simple words, is the light and heat radiated by the sun. Here on Earth, we can collect that solar energy with solar panels and convert it into electricity we can use to power our homes.

What are five advantages of solar energy?

Five advantages of solar energy include:

  1. It's a truly renewable energy source that directly offsets carbon emissions and air pollution.
  2. It helps homeowners save money on power bills.
  3. There are low maintenance costs for homeowners.
  4. Solar can be used in remote applications to power homes or shelters that aren't connected to an energy grid.
  5. Solar panel manufacturing and installation creates thousands of green jobs per year.

How do you explain solar energy to a child?

Here's how we would explain solar energy to a child: You know how when you step into the sun, you feel hot? That heat is a form of energy. Solar panels are a way of catching that energy, and using it to power your home.

Karsten Neumeister is a writer and renewable energy specialist with a background in writing and the humanities. Before joining EcoWatch, Karsten worked in the energy sector of New Orleans, focusing on renewable energy policy and technology. A lover of music and the outdoors, Karsten might be found rock climbing, canoeing or writing songs when away from the workplace.
Average Cost of Solar Panels in Arizona: What to Expect (2022)

We break down what the average homeowner pays for solar in Arizona.

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Frank Staub / Photodisc / Getty Images

Anyone who has spent time in the southwestern U.S., particularly in the deserts of Arizona, would find it no surprise that the region has some of the best natural solar resources in the country. But all the sunshine in the world won't mean anything if the cost of solar panels in Arizona keeps renewable energy out of reach for homeowners across the Grand Canyon State.

From reduced energy bills to shrunken carbon footprints, there are many benefits of going solar. Regardless, for most homeowners, making the switch comes down to one key question: How much do solar panels cost in Arizona?

In this article, we'll discuss the average cost of solar panels in Arizona as well as key information about financing solar, public policies that may incentivize solar installations and more. If you want to see how much solar would cost for your home, specifically, you'll need to get a free quote from a solar installer near you. You can do so using this tool or by filling out the form below.

How Much Do Solar Panels Cost in Arizona?

Solar panel costs in Arizona are about on par with the U.S average. Local factors and supply limitations don't hamper Arizona installations or pull prices in either direction. Based on market-based research and data from top solar companies, we've found that the average cost of solar panels in Arizona is $2.61 per watt (the national average is $2.66 per watt).

Of course, solar systems aren't purchased one watt at a time, so what does that price look like in terms of actual installations? Using the state average, for a modestly sized 5-kilowatt (kW) system, the total system cost would be $13,050, but after the federal tax credit is applied, out-of-pocket costs would be lowered to about $9,657.

For larger systems to be installed on homes, businesses, schools or other facilities, average solar power costs break down as follows:

Size of Solar Panel System Arizona Solar Panel Cost Cost After
Federal Tax Credit
5kW $13,050 $9,657
6kW $15,660 $11,588
7kW $18,270 $13,520
8kW $20,880 $15,451
9kW $23,490 $17,383
10kW $26,100 $19,314

The above table provides statewide average prices, but each home solar panel installation will have its own unique characteristics, so costs will vary in actuality.

Some installations will be more straightforward (such as those on a roof that readily faces the sun) while others will be more complicated (such as an irregular-shaped roof or a ground-mounted system), so the actual price for a specific project is best estimated with an installer who can account for your individual needs.

What Determines the Cost of Solar Panels in Arizona?

There are a number of factors that can influence the cost of solar panels in Arizona, including the extent of your home's energy needs and the local incentives you're eligible for. Here are a few other key things that will play into pricing:

Solar Equipment

Not all solar energy systems are alike, and the specific equipment chosen for your project will influence the final cost. Solar panels themselves are seeing lots of research and development, meaning the most efficient solar panels can generate greater amounts of electricity — but they come at a higher cost.

Similarly, things like inverters, solar batteries and the mounting equipment needed to secure the panels to your roof will vary in cost based on the quality of materials and complexity of the install. If you opt for added features like rotating panels or smart technology, your investment will be even more significant. These factors can all be discussed during a free consultation with a solar expert.

Solar Financing

Regardless of the size and quality of the solar system being installed, the total will usually be relatively high upfront. Because of these capital requirements, it's extremely common for customers to finance their solar systems. The type of financing used will not only impact what a customer pays upfront, but it will also affect the length of the customer's solar payback period, or how long it takes to "break even" on the investment.

Here's how the three most common payment options can affect the cost of solar panels in Arizona:

  • Cash: For homeowners with the capital available to cover the full price of their solar system, it's smart to pay in full upfront. This is less common because of the aforementioned high price point, but if workable, it results in the lowest overall cost and thus shortens your payback period.
  • Loans: If you're unable or unwilling to pay in full, there's the option to take out a simple loan to pay for the solar system. A solar loan can allow you to purchase a more expensive, premium system, but of course, loans come with interest, and that extra cost will eat into your payback period.
  • Leases or power purchase agreements (PPAs): Lastly, potential solar customers may opt to work with a solar company that leases panels to homeowners. With this payment method, you don't have to pay upfront costs, but you also don't own the system (and, thus, are ineligible to cash in on tax credits). In the long run, the amount you will save on energy bills will be much lower, but you are also relieved of the burden of paying for the system yourself.

Installation Company

A third factor that really impacts the cost of solar systems for Arizonans is the choice of installation company. The solar industry is booming, and as such, there is no shortage of contractors and installers who will be eager to help you install your residential solar system.

As with any major home improvement project, different installers have their own rates, oftentimes correlated with the quality or even speed of their work, and it's up to the customer to do their homework to evaluate potential installation companies. Simply going with the lowest-cost installation company may not be wise if it isn't reputable, but at the same time, certified local installers may charge lower prices to compete with big-name national installers.

Our best advice is to look at the best solar companies in Arizona, research what deals or specials are available, and talk to neighbors or look at online reviews to find a company that offers you a good price and will deliver the quality of work you need.

Arizona Solar Incentives

Public policy leaders have done a fair job of offering financial incentives that lower the cost of solar in Arizona. Although the state's net metering program was phased out in 2016, there are still a number of tax credits and incentives available to homeowners. These include:

Arizona Solar Incentive How it Affects the Cost of Solar Panels in Arizona
Arizona solar tax credit This statewide program allows people who install solar on their homes to be credited 25% of total installation costs (up to $1,000) in the form of a personal income tax reduction.
Solar tax exemptions The 5.6% of sales tax that's typically charged in Arizona is not applied to the purchase of solar equipment.
Similarly, most upgrades to homes will increase the value of the home, and that value is what is taxed via property taxes. Arizona, however, excludes the value increase from solar panels when evaluating how much property tax you must pay.
Local solar incentives On top of state incentives, numerous towns, cities and counties may have their own incentives to encourage citizens to engage with solar. Because these can vary greatly from one jurisdiction to the next, you should research your area (or call your local representatives) to find out more.
Federal solar tax credit Anyone in the U.S., including Arizona, is able to take advantage of the federal solar investment tax credit, or ITC. For any solar systems installed before the end of 2022, 26% of the cost of the system is available as an income tax credit.

FAQ: Cost of Solar Panels in Arizona

Is it worth going solar in Arizona?

Yes, it is generally worth going solar in Arizona. Solar panels are a great way to reduce electric bills and carbon emissions for your home or business. Depending on the size and cost of the system, customers who install solar can expect to see a full return on their investment decades before the end of life of the system, turning additional savings into pure profit.

How long does it take for solar panels to pay for themselves in Arizona?

The average payback period for solar panels is about eight years, and the average lifespan of a system is about 25 years. The payback period can be greater or shorter depending on the size of installation, tax incentives utilized and total cost paid by the customer.

How many solar panels are needed to power a house in Arizona?

The average home needs about 20 to 25 solar panels to offset 100% of energy needs. However, that figure will vary widely based on the energy used by the home, the size and efficiency of the panels, how much shade falls onto the panels from nearby buildings or trees, and other factors.

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This holiday season, you may be anticipating spending time with some family members that, let's just say, don't share your concern for the environment. If you find political and generational differences becoming more apparent, you may be wondering how to speak about something as important as sustainability in a way that will resonate with others.

We're here to help. Below, you'll find nine of the most common arguments against solar. Of course, this goes beyond just speaking with family — we hear the following misconceptions about solar from a number of sources, so we've decided to put together a guide about how to address them.

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So, you've read up on the best solar panels available and have decided to prioritize efficiency. Smart move. Buying the most efficient solar panels provides you with the most bang for your buck when working with limited roof space and is often (but not always) the best choice for homeowners.

In its simplest terms, solar panel efficiency refers to the amount of sunlight that falls on the panels that is converted into energy, or solar power. In this article, we'll break down what makes solar efficiency important and help you pinpoint the most efficient solar panels for your home.

If you're ready to seek out a certified solar installer in your area, you can use this tool or fill out the form below to get connected and receive a free quote.

Understanding the Efficiency of Solar Panels

Efficiency measures the amount of electricity a solar panel produces relative to the amount of sunlight (or irradiation) that strikes its surface. The most efficient solar panels on the market today only reach about 22.8% (shoutout to SunPower) — meaning that the panel converts about 22.8% of the sun's irradiance into usable AC electricity.

This may sound like a small amount, but the rapid progress of solar technology has surpassed most expectations. Only about 10 years ago, solar panels averaged around 15% efficiency. The first solar panels from the mid-1950s only reached an efficiency of 2%. There are currently panels in development reaching efficiency levels nearing 50% that we may see hit the market sometime in the future.

Tracking Solar Panel EfficiencyData Credit: National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL)

What Are the Most Efficient Solar Panels Available Today?

With so many recent advancements in solar technology, let's take a look at the most efficient solar panels available in 2022. Based on our research, these are the best solar panels for efficiency at the time of publication:

Most Efficient Solar Panels

Efficiency Rating

Power

SunPower Maxeon M-Series

22.8%

420-435 W

LG NeON R

22.3%

405 W

Jinko Solar Tiger Neo

22.3%

620 W

REC Solar Alpha

21.9%

405 W

Panasonic EverVolt

21.7%

380 W

Trina Solar Vertex S

21.6%

670 W

Silfab 380-BLK

21.4%

380 W

FuturaSun FU M Zebra

21.3%

360 W

LONGi Solar Hi-MO 5

20.6%-21.4%

485-505 W

Q Cells Q.Peak DUO G9+

20.6%

360 W

Power refers to the wattage output capacity of the panel. The more powerful the panel, the more electricity it is able to produce. Note that power works in conjunction with efficiency, rather than determining it.

What Determines Solar Panel Efficiency?

Two main factors determine solar panel efficiency: the makeup of the photovoltaic (PV) cell, and the structure of the panel. You might wonder what differentiates the two.

Solar Cell Efficiency

A solar cell is the smallest unit within a solar panel, usually composed of silicon atoms. The photovoltaic effect — which is the process by which sunlight is turned into electricity — happens in the solar cells themselves, and solar panels join together multiple cells to produce higher amounts of power and allow that power to flow through a home.

Solar cells on a solar panelvisdia / Getty Images

The most efficient types of solar panels are usually monocrystalline (rather than polycrystalline or thin-film). In this type of panel, the solar cell is cut from one solid silicon crystal. This leads to fewer imperfections in the cell, making them more capable of absorbing sunlight and, thus, more efficient.

It's possible you've heard about N-type or P-type solar cells in your research as well. This won't matter very much to the average customer, but if you're curious, these solar cell types differ in their chemistry due to the number of electrons they carry. N-type cells are negatively charged (via phosphorus), while P-type cells are positively charged (via boron). Multi-junction solar cells exist, too, made with both P- and N-type materials.

Solar Panel Efficiency

Overall solar panel efficiency has more to do with the structure of the panel itself. Even if you have the most efficient solar cells available, the next step is to gather those electrons and direct a current in a specific direction. A solar panel has to be as smoothly interconnected as possible, so as not to lose any energy in this part of the process. Temperature, cell type and design will have a large effect on overall efficiency in this context.

Why Is Solar Panel Efficiency Important?

It would be unfair to equate the most efficient solar panels with the best solar panels, as a number of other factors — namely durability, cost, warranty and power — can have a large impact on overall quality.

However, in residential solar, efficiency is typically one of the more important considerations. Here's why.

Quicker Payback Period

The more efficient your solar power system, the higher your power output will be, and the more quickly you'll recoup your initial investment. The cost of solar panels can be intimidating, but efficient panels will help slash a larger portion of your electricity bills, accelerating your solar payback period.

Something else to keep in mind is that the more efficient your solar panels are, the lower number of solar panels and inverters you'll need to achieve your home energy goals.

Better for Limited Space

Many residential solar energy projects are confined in terms of space available for solar panels. Some might see their roofs and think there's plenty of space, but zoning laws and regulations often require spaces between panels and gaps between the arrays and the sides of the roof. For homes with less roof space, high-efficiency panels allow you to do more with less.

In commercial solar installations where you have more space to work with, efficiency won't be as big a factor.

Doing More With Less

In addition to working with limited space, requiring fewer solar panels lowers the impact of your solar project itself. As Dr. Yifeng Chen, head of efficiency research and development at Trina Solar, says, "improving module efficiency is a key to helping customers save land, labor, cables, etc."

The highest-efficiency solar panels require fewer materials, shipping costs and waste. It may not seem like much to shave off one or two panels from your solar array, but seeing as the U.S. averages some 3 million solar installations per quarter, the impact can add up.

Other Factors Impacting Efficiency

At the risk of getting too technical, here are a number of other aspects of solar panels that factor into efficiency.

Wavelength

The spectrum of light that a solar cell is able to absorb can vary. Most modern solar cell technology is only capable of capturing visible light, excluding other wavelengths like infrared and UV rays. In general, the wider the spectrum of light that can be captured, the more efficient the cell will be. Some researchers are currently focusing on solar cells capable of capturing infrared rays, which would dramatically increase efficiency.

Temperature

High temperatures and extreme weather conditions can put a lot of stress on a solar panel. In fact, solar panels are actually more effective in colder conditions when they can work without overheating. Panels that are durable, and that can withstand high temperatures, will have greater overall efficiency and lifespan.

Reflection

Solar panels need a protective coating on them to ensure their longevity. What's challenging, however, is that this protective coating shouldn't reflect any of the potential energy the solar cells are trying to capture. Higher-efficiency panels will have high-quality protective coatings that reflect the least light possible, increasing overall energy production.

Environmental Factors Affecting Efficiency

While solar panel efficiency is determined in large part by solar cell technology and the construction of the panels themselves, there are also a number of other real-world contributors to the overall amount of power your system will be able to generate.

Climate and Latitude

Climate and latitude have a large impact on the overall efficiency of your solar energy system. The closer you live to the equator, the more direct sunlight you'll receive on an annual basis. Climate factors in as well. If you live somewhere rainy or often covered by clouds, you won't get as much production out of your system.

Solar Panel Orientation

Similar to the role of latitude, your panel orientation will affect efficiency. If you live in the northern hemisphere, the best direction for your solar panels to face is south (and north if you're in the southern hemisphere), as this is how they will get the most direct sunlight. If your roof isn't at a great angle for solar, your system will be less efficient.

Dirt, Dust or Grime Buildup

This factor is particularly unappreciated — you might be surprised how much production you lose when you don't clean your panels. Fortunately, it's pretty easy to give your panels the routine maintenance they deserve to keep your home powered on clean energy.

How to Find the Most Efficient Solar Panels

Solar panel manufacturers continue to make large strides in solar panel efficiency as the industry continues to recognize its value. Highly efficient, monocrystalline panels are ideal for residential solar systems, as those projects typically have the least amount of space to work with. For this reason, most top solar companies should be certified to sell and install the most efficient solar panels listed above.

If you're looking to invest in high-efficiency panels, we recommend getting in touch with solar installers near you to inquire about their product portfolios. Now that you know so much about solar efficiency and why it matters, you'll be well prepared to find the proposal with the best value for your money.

To start getting in touch with certified local installers, you can use this tool or fill out the form below.

FAQ: Most Efficient Solar Panels

What is the most efficient solar panel?

As of publication, SunPower's M-Series panels hold the throne for the most efficient solar panels on the market, at 22.8% efficiency. Though there are more efficient solar panels in development, it will be some time before they're available commercially.

Can solar panels be 100% efficient?

"In science, nothing is ever 100%." — Michio Kaku

For a common solar panel to be 100% efficient, it would have to convert all potential energy that strikes its surface area into AC electricity. This means a solar panel would need to absorb no heat, cover every spectrum of light, not reflect any light, and not lose a single electron over decades of complex chemical processes.

However, there is research being done on what's called "multiple exciton generation" (MEG). Researchers claim solar cells have surpassed 100% efficiency using MEG, a process by which "a single high energy photon can produce more than one electron-hole pair per absorbed photon. The extra efficiency comes from quantum dots 'harvesting' energy that would otherwise be lost as heat." So, 100% efficiency may be attainable if we think outside the box.

Which solar panels produce the most electricity?

Another way to phrase this might be, "which solar panels are the most powerful?" This is measured by wattage. This past year was a landmark year for the power of solar panels, as some commercial and industrial panels from brands like Jinko and Trina are nearing 700 W.

Karsten Neumeister is a writer and renewable energy specialist with a background in writing and the humanities. Before joining EcoWatch, Karsten worked in the energy sector of New Orleans, focusing on renewable energy policy and technology. A lover of music and the outdoors, Karsten might be found rock climbing, canoeing or writing songs when away from the workplace.

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