Is conservation the answer?

Posted in Energy, Society at 23:51 by RjZ

In a recent post I argued that we should take another look at nuclear energy, at the very least in the mid-term until alternative energy sources become more reasonable economic alternatives. I was not surprised that comments on that post reacted so strongly to the bad, bad word: nuclear (or should I say newcular) One solution suggested (if half-heartedly) was conservation.

I am a big fan of conserving as anyone who has visited my home in the winter without a sweater will certainly attest. I feel that conservation, especially conservation that doesn’t impede our economy is the only wise choice. Still, I began to doubt that conservation is an effective solution to our energy problems.

According to EarthTrends energy consumption, per capita in North America is nearly flat from 1999 to 2001 at 7,539.0 kilograms of oil equivalent (kgoe) per person per year in 1999, 8,090.5 in 2000 and 7,928.5 in 2001. (That’s all the data their free database let me collect though. Earth Trends is part of the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank.

National Atlas.gov had data for this graph from 1960 to 2001 which agrees well with the WRI. Again, consumption is trending down right now and hasn’t been increasing as much as you’d imagine from all those huge cars on the streets.

Pre capital Btus

How is this possible? One thing’s for sure. What’s not happening is people turning off their Christmas lights or wearing sweaters in their homes, let alone driving around in little Geo Metros. Instead, all those big companies that people love to hate have been driven to produce more efficient cars and lights and electronics because, fortunately, there’s a market for it. Conservation is definitely a good thing, it’s even driving part of our economy. That’s good news. A modern mid-size SUV, for example, gets about the same gas mileage as my ‘81 Honda Civic used to and I am fairly certain it has lower emissions of SO2 and NOx as well. I am typing this on a laptop that uses about as much energy as an incandescent bulb and the light in this room is a compact fluorescent that uses about a fifth of the energy of the incandescent bulb it replaces. LCDs use energy than CRTs and my refrigerator and clothes washer all use less than their counterparts of 20 years ago.

Lucky for us we have all those companies, because I don’t think it’s realistic for us to actually turn off those lights and put on sweaters. And as long as that’s not the case, it’s probably equally unrealistic for us to claim that conservation is more than just part of the solution to global warming and pollution put out by all those fossil power plants. I wish it weren’t so, but it doesn’t look like conservation alone will remove that bad “newcular” word from our list of solutions any time soon.


  1. Penelope said,

    December 2, 2005 at 0:30

    You know, some really cool people (see definitions of “cool” in discussion below) drive little Geo Metros anyway.

    Oddly enough, I’ve learned that many larger and more fashionable cars, such as the VW New Beetle (which also comes in a diesel model, meaning that one could run it on biodiesel, an alternative which sounds exciting to me based on what little I’ve read so far), get even better gas mileage than my little roller skate of a car does. Still, I’ll keep driving Metros because I don’t like car loans (or any other kind of debt, for that matter), and because their goofiness matches the rest of my style.

    In any event, since about the time my brain chemistry evened out (so Rachel explained, also below), I think I’ve known that if there is any answer to the world’s environmental problems, it lies not in the self-control of lots of individuals, but in engineering. One the whole, we’re selfish and lazy, but with really cool inventions, we will be able to conserve and be selfish and lazy at the same time. Hooray for science!

  2. James Aach said,

    December 2, 2005 at 10:23

    As a 20+ year veteran of the nuclear power industry who’s recently been looking at a lot of postings on the internet about energy, I’d say your 11/19 post on energy sources was about the best I’ve read. I think you captured the magic, and the quandry we’re all in right now. I also agree that a big part of our future has to be conservation. It’s cheaper than the other solutions.

    You and your readers might be interested to know there is a painless way available on the internet (at no cost) to learn more about electric energy generation in the United States, and nuclear power in particular. It’s a techno-thriller novel called “Rad Decision” which I spent a number of years putting together after growing tired of watching and reading endless reports on energy production that didn’t seem to capture the truth of the matter. (For nuclear power in particular, I’ve yet to see or read a commentator that has a clue – either pro or con).

    “Rad Decision” is available at RadDecision.blogspot.com. It is presented either in short episodes or as a PDF file for downloading. Again there is no cost to readers.

    “I’d like to see Rad Decision widely read.” – Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and noted futurist.

    The novel covers electric generation in general, nuclear power from radiation to Chernobyl, and ends with a detailed description of how a nuclear accident here in the U.S. might proceed. All this is within a story of intrigue and mayhem, designed for the general reader.

    I myself am not sure what the future of nuclear power should be. I am sure we’ll make better decisions if we understand what nuclear power is right now.

    Episode 1 describes a little-known energy disaster here in the United States that didn’t involve nuclear power. (See the episode’s comments for pics.)

    I hope you and your blog fans will take a few minutes and check out Rad Decision.


    James Aach

  3. RjZ said,

    December 2, 2005 at 10:39

    I hate that I just discovered a typo–in the title of my graph no less! but it’s too inconvenient to fix. Sorry. Also, James is plugging his book but hey, I think that’s great–he read my blog after all! Welcome James!

  4. tim rohrer said,

    December 2, 2005 at 12:41

    It isn’t that “nuclear” is a bad word. It is that it is simply the longest lasting form of highly concentrated toxic pollution we have succeeded in making.

    Conservation won’t solve all our ills–but nuclear energy is just simply foolish, given the current state of the technology. While no energy source is completely clean, some are just far less clean than others.

    Unfortunately, the regulatory environment in this country is being restructured away from promoting energy conservation and cleaner, less polluting energy generation and toward rewarding polluters. That’s one nub of the problem. Higher clean air standards (i.e. low-sulfur emissions) for coal-fired plants would stimulate cleaner power generation of one source we are not likely to turn out of. Unfortunately, most of the best coal-scribbing equipment is now made and designed in Germany–because our government has failed to encourage development of cleaner coal-burning tehnology while German govt put an emphasis on it. So we lose twice; once for lacking clean air, and another time for being less able to compete in a world-wide marketplace for such technology.

  5. tim rohrer said,

    December 2, 2005 at 12:59

    One more comment:

    Energy conservation isn’t the same thing as energy efficiency, nor is pollution from energy generation the same thing as accidents from energy generaton from them. And none of these are the same as the primary thing you’ve commented on in this post, which is energy demand and energy consumption. I note you haven’t really addressed energy conservation in this post, nor most of the other objections raised to your effort to bring nuclear power back to the discussion table. What about the accidents, Ron? What about the waste?

    Moreover, I would note that not all of the links between these issues are as straightforward as one might think. Some years ago I read in the NY Academy of Sciences magazine a case in which increased energy efficiency in locomotive engines actually increased pollution–by increasing the demand for freight and passenger travel. Ironic? Sure. Complex? You bet.

    And just for the record, I don’t blindly think that conservation or alternative energy generation is the only way to go. We need a healthy mix, and we need to be thinking comprehensively about all facets of energy use. For example, I’m a critic of PV solar because when you look at the ROI (Return on Energy Investment) and the amount of fossil fuels used and toxic byproducts generated in making current tech PV panels, they don’t make sense except in specialized applications where other forms of power are unavailable or unreliable. On the other hand, heating hot water with passive solar makes a ton of sense.

  6. RjZ said,

    December 2, 2005 at 13:55

    Tim, we agree that this issue is more complex than many give it credit; that is, after all, why I brought it up in the first place. I will however, respond, if only briefly to your comments.
    Like Penelope, I don’t think conservation is either effective, reasonable, or likely. Economies are tied to consumption. Use more energy, produce more goods. I, for one, think life, most everywhere, is much better (for people) today than it was centuries ago when the only way to grow food was with the a hoe and lots of sweat. Energy consumption has increased along with it. Check out Pat’s post for a comment on that. As a result, I am glad that improved efficiency has kept actual energy consumption at bay while demand has continued to increase.
    What about the accidents? Pat commented about the dangers associated with nuclear power with his reference to the UN report. The UN is hardly some right-wing organization and they still show far less impact from nuclear power than one is led to believe.
    Finally, as I said, the actual waste from a nuclear power plant is ‘nasty stuff.’ Of course I don’t want to trivialize here but honestly, I would rather have one cubic foot of awful, horrible, evil, dangerous waste than millions of tons of rather bad, poisonous, green-house-gas-producing waste that we are already making (both figures are per power plant per year. Approximately, of course.)

    The coal we burn in power plants isn’t really just coal. It’s carbon, plus lots of other trace elements. Did you know that a tiny amount of those are radioactive? They occur naturally in the environment of course. Unfortunately, the process of gathering them together into a pile and burning them means we mass them up in one place around the coal plant. Yup radioactive waste right from a coal plant. There’s only a tiny fraction of radioactive material in coal, but we burn so much of the stuff and that’s my point. Nuclear waste is bad, but there is so little of it, it’s rather manageable.

    Of course, you might say that you’re not recommending burning coal, except that our choice is burn coal and oil or have less energy and return, more or less, to living in caves. Or maybe you’d just like us to pay the real cost of the energy we use and start building alternative energy sources. Even if that could happen over night, were talking about increasing the cost of energy at least double (and I haven’t even covering the cost of building these new wind farms, solar collectors and fuel cells.) What if we even had a viable alternative energy source that can produce kilowatts in the quantities we are using them? We don’t, of course. If you covered the complete state of Iowa with windmills you’d get something like 40% of our energy and a lot of very unhappy Iowans. Actually, I don’t live in Iowa; I might be OK with this. After all, I make really good money so when my energy bills along with the cost of most everything I buy increases, I’ll be happy to pay for it. Not sure what you’re planning to do with most U.S. households, though, who make less than $42,000 per year They’re going to be stretched pretty thin, don’t you think?

    Finally, while you do keep scaring us with how nasty the nuclear waste is, you are willing to let technology bail us out of how nasty fossil waste is. Maybe if we spend the next 40 years thinking about what to do about nuclear waste we’ll come up with something too. At least during that 40 year wait we won’t have produced as much green-house gases, coal mine accidents, and giga tons of ash.

    You admit that alternative energy isn’t there today. I wish it were, but no amount of wishful thinking will make it so. We need to continue to invest in it. As a result you want us to clean up coal. Except that even clean coal isn’t really clean enough (and by the way, coal is much cleaner than most people think, relative to the black smoke pouring out of stacks just 40 years ago.) You won’t let nuclear on the table because of accidents which even the UN doesn’t find significant and waste which is horrible, but so miniscule as to be manageable. Seems to me, your only alternatives are really raising prices or moving into caves.

  7. pat said,

    December 5, 2005 at 17:00

    From my limited perspective, nucular (not newcular, darn it) looks pretty compelling, especially if coal is the competition. Perhaps coming at the issue from the consumer’s perspective will be illuminating.

    A regular-size house uses 1 kilowatt of electricity, averaged over all day, every day. That costs around $1000 a year and the energy generation has environmental effects no matter how it’s done. What would it take to generate that much electricity on my own?

    For starters, the noonday sun gives us just over 1 kilowatt per square meter here in Colorado. If we average over day and night and over all weather and latitudes of the United States, it works out to 160 watts per square meter. If we use standard-grade (not satellite-grade) solar cells, then we can convert sun power to electricity with just under 20% efficiency. This means we can get, on average, around 30 watts per square meter, and so 30 square meters of solar panels would run my house. Could I construct a 30-sq m array on my roof for a low enough cost to pay for itself in, say, 10 years? If not, what would the pay-back time be?

    It turns out that wind power also averages out to about 30 watts per square meter, so similar economics would apply. If we could figure out how to wean one house off the grid cost-effectively, then there might be another option besides nucular and coal.

  8. Mark said,

    December 7, 2005 at 1:00

    Why is solar currently so expensive? Do you think that materials and production of solar could someday be more cost effective then they are now, to the point where it is a viable option for most people?

  9. admin said,

    December 7, 2005 at 8:47

    There are two types of solar cells out there. High efficiency, extremely expensive types that go on satellites and the kind we’re likely to use. The high efficiency types are upwards of 35% efficient and the less expensive types are as high as 18%. What that actually means is that solar cells are pretty damn good. So what’s the problem? It isn’t sunny all the time (like at night) so you need batteries. Batteries are very expensive (and often explosive and bad for the environment, ask a volunteer firefighter what they think of fighting a car fire if there’s a hybrid involved.)

    The average house may use 1 kW as Pat explains, but they need to have about 10kW available (your fridge and microwave together are already about 2 kW. Make sure you don’t have the lights on (maybe 1 kW), an electric stove (about 3 kW) or use a hair dryer (about 1.5 kW) cause you’ll get up to 10 kW pretty quickly.)

    But then, you don’t need to be completely off the grid. Still, in addition to the solar cells you’ll need inverters to get from DC to AC that all your appliances use. There’s also the reliability issue. Solar cells don’t last for ever.

    At any rate, it’s actually pretty darn close and rich people could probably afford them, it’s just that the return on investment is maybe 10 years and that’s too long for most people to seriously consider and out of the question for the average American family earning just over $40K / year. Things might get better (particularly with battery technology; barring a break through, I wouldn’t expect too much from the solar cells) and there are other ways to get energy from the sun (you can also use it to heat your water and maybe get energy from bio-mass; plants do!) but we’re not there yet.

    Someday? I know Pat and I are hoping to be the guys who get rich off of solar power someday, and we’re not the only ones thinking about it.

  10. tim rohrer said,

    December 8, 2005 at 8:35

    By the way, and on a practical note, after Jan 1 homeowners can get tax credits for doing some intelligent energy-conservation work on their homes… one of the few good things in the 2005 Energy Policy Act. See:


    Some (not so) brief responses to Ron:

    Ron: “You admit that alternative energy isn’t there today. I wish it were, but no amount of wishful thinking will make it so. We need to continue to invest in it. ”

    This isn’t true and I did not say that. Alternative energy is there–but not in the model of centralized power distribution that we are used to, and there are more efficient ways to use alternative sources of energy than, say PV panels. Converting solar to hot water for use and heating is a much better use of solar energy, for instance. Building intelligently–I spent last weeekend down in Crestone, Colorado where R50 is not an uncommon level of wall insulation, where passive solar window designs are the norm, and where homes are often built into the sides of hills to take natural advantage of the earth’s moderating effect on temperatures. People often confuse these practices with conservation because they reduce the use of the “backup” traditional sources of energy like electric, gas, and propane. One of the real problems is current building practices and codes–huge box houses without basements in a Colorado climate are simply energy nightmares, especially in the summer. Rather than taking advantage of natural cooling in the basement, they require active, energy consuming cooling–even though they are much better insulated than my 60s vintage house.

    The point is that alternative energy sources are not the usual, on the grid, somebody else handles power generation and power distribution model that we currently have. You are a physicist–you know that we lose tremendous amounts of electical power whenever we transmit it or invert it (pat alludes to this when he is thinking about converting PV generated DC power to run conventional AC appliances–failing to mention that DC appliances are an option). Then, again, this is to say nothing of the fact that fossil fuels must be transported using (usually) fossil fuels. But if we were to actively work to change the model of how buildings are built–and it’s not just homes, but look at all the flatroofed, no windows big box stores that populate America’s strip mall nightmare… if we to actively change the model of how buildings were built, through more energy-responsible codes requiring things like passive solar, then we would be cahnging also the model of how we look at energy generation. Ultimately I think we are going have to do that, because unless an unforeseable genius makes a genuine technological breakthrough, the centralized power distribution model is going to break down mone and more often. (see below, after nuclear power).

    Ron: “As a result you want us to clean up coal. Except that even clean coal isn’t really clean enough (and by the way, coal is much cleaner than most people think, relative to the black smoke pouring out of stacks just 40 years ago.)”

    My point here is simply that we’ve fallen behind in clean coal technology–we used to work on this years ago when I was at Hauser–compared to the rest of the world because of our anti-regulatory climate (curiously a case of the antiregulatory movement inhibiting competition–not at all what you libertarians and the rightwingers so blindly assert). Coal isn’t without drawbacks, and you rightly point out some of them–I’ve mentioned some others. The greenhouse gas issue is serious, but so are the problems with nuclear waste. I think that coal will and should be a part of the mix, despite its difficulties. And yes, I know that when we concentrate trace minerals as we burn coal, one of the byproducts is radioactive waste. However, it is significantly less dangerous than nuclear waste, and there’s less of it.

    Ron: “You won’t let nuclear on the table because of accidents which even the UN doesn’t find significant and waste which is horrible, but so miniscule as to be manageable. Seems to me, your only alternatives are really raising prices or moving into caves.”

    Accidents are only one concern, but waste figures into accidents. I haven’t yet read the UN report (did I miss a link?), but I would ask the questions “for whom?” and “by what measure?” Are those effects insignificant to the farmers whose land was contaminated? To those who died of cancer from radiation poisoning? To the ranchers in Nevada whose water is threatened by Yucca Mountain? Or more significantly, to anyone who happens to be coming along a freeway when a tractor trailer transporting nuclear waste overturns in a car-truck accident? Or to the EMT who is overexposed working to rescue people in that situation? Or to the fish when nuclear waste is dumped into the ocean in barrels to rust, in an effort to cut costs (this has happened–read the book “Broken Arrows”).

    I’d be happy to lend Ron my copy of Perrow’s Normal Accidents. One of his central points is that in highly-complex, real-time dangerous systems like nuclear power generation, the potential for accidents is so large that they are statistically inevitable. Some of the “minor accidents” that have actually occurred would be laughable if they weren’t so tragic–for example workers in one nuclear power plant misapplied a blueprint to the maze of pipes they were repaitring and accidentally conencted the reactor cooling water into a drinking fountain. Interaction with complexity causes accidents–we humans are error prone.

    You’ve also said I’ve been “scaring” readers of this blog about nuclear energy. While I suspect most readers of this blog don’t scare easily, I think we have to ask whether people ought to be scared of nuclear power, nuclear waste and the potential for nuclear accidents. After all, and as Aristotle said, when the foolhardy ride into battle and the wise retreat to fight another day, the fools fail to be scared at the right time and for the right reasons.

    As I’ve said, current technology nuclear energy generation is untenable. (Even though it has improved greatly elsewhere in the world over the thirty years that no new nuclear plants have been built in the U.S.) If a genius were to come along and invent a better form of it that was not waste producing, less complex, and inherently safer, I’d be all for it. I am for research into nuclear power in general, though the specifics of any proposed site will be justly difficult.

    So do I say we need to go back to the caves just because I find nuclear untenable and will readily admit coal and other energy sources come with problems? Well, yes, if caves means homes with basements and that use thermal mass systems stored there in CO climates (as above ;) . But seriously the answer is no. The problem is not a lack of energy; it is a lack of adaptation to local ecology because of our model of centralized power generation and distribution.

    I said that I think that model is ultimately unsustainable, given both its current scale and the growth curve in energy consumption Ron takes as an unalterable law of nature. Here’s what I see as the nub of this problem. Fossil fuels, particularly oil/gasoline have an extremely high energy density by weight, which is one of the things that makes them so attractive. In other words, if you transport a pound of gasoline using gasoline, you can do so very efficently (hence a fundamental problem in electric vehicle design is the weight of the batteries). Nothing else is nearly as good in this respect, and as a result much of apparent energy wealth is really derived from living on a “platform” of fossil fuels.

    Now, many energy forms that are high tech use an enormous amount of energy–such as manufacturing PV panels or mining raw materials and the copious amount of bytechnologies (from pipe fittings to computers) necessary for the nuclear industry. Can we sustain those once the oil supply starts to dwindle? I admit to being a pessimist here. I think realistically, scientifically, oil is just incredible stuff. Life’s gonna get downright lousy as we start to run out of it. Ron, I think the best thing we can do to avoid radical price increases is to rethink how we use and generate energy. If we don’t eventually we will forced to rthink these anyway–barring the aforementioned unforeseen genius. Even so, price increases will happen anyway.

    I think we have two essential disagreements. One, you see the rise in energy consumption as inevitable and second you seem to portray human history as accompanied by an even rate of progress that makes things beter. But in a historical perspective this isn’t true–those civilized romans ran out of wood energy and their empire crumbled, reducing energy consumption. Thinking from an evolutionary perspective, the industrial revolution through today is only a blip in human history. In evolutionary time, forces beyond our control are likely to cause the human population and its demand for energy to drop. Perhaps we’ll contribute to that with greenhouse gas or jet travel inducing pandemics. Perhaps so, perhaps not. Is life better now for the vastly more humans than lived in 1000 AD? Again, this comes back to the questions of “for whom?” and “by what measure?” In Sweetness and power and other books Sid Mintz documented the shift in the percentage of calories coming from meat, dairy and vegetable to sugar based foods in working/middle class diets both before and after the industrial revolution. Today we have problems with obesity in children forom feeding them too much sugar-based junk food. Again, better “for whom?” and “by what measure?” Not human life was ever, or ever will be a bucolic paradise. But I just can’t subscribe to the assumptions that things are now better for everyone in every way as direct result of the growth curve in energy consumption accompanied by higher technology and human progress.

    Perhaps, where energy is concerned, we need a community of Walden threes instead of Ron’s vision of increasing globalization and a constant cline to human progress….

    “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and to see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary: I wanted to live deep and suck the marrow out of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put rout to all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness about it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and to be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.”
    –HDT, Walden: Where I Lived and What I Lived For

    That isn’t intended as call for a return to Ron’s caves or to a woodsy hermitage–but perhaps we do need to drive our suppositions about our energy use into a corner in order to get a true account of energy.

  11. RjZ said,

    December 14, 2005 at 13:10


    See the post A new energy policy where I discuss the distributed energy model that you mentioned here. I am not opposed to smarter building, although I don’t buy that conservation will have much effect.

    I am looking forward to what you think of my proposal. I think you’re right about the distributed distribution model but I’ll be interested in what you think of the politics of my proposal. I am also pleased to agree with you about the energy density of fossil fuels. Gas is about 50 times coal, by the way, but that is exactly one of the reasons for Nuclear. It’s about 50,000 times gas! Running out of gas won’t be such a problem if we’re already using fission though….

    I think your argument about energy required to build a nuclear power plant (pipe fittings to computers) is downright silly though. That’s an argument for nuclear. Fewer power plants for the same power.

    Your discussion of the industrial revolution as being a blip in history addresses only the scale of time. If worried at all about such things as global warming then the time that we have spent in the industrial revolution isn’t nearly as important as the impact. For people (not trees or bunnies) I do believe that life is better now than a 1000 years ago. No question. I’ll go so far as to say it’s better for the worst of us than it was 1000 years ago, not just for the richest, let alone for the majority. That some are obese and even dying from it is hardly a problem compared to the daily dangers encountered on your way to what would be called an early death by today’s standards in the year 1000.

    You don’t want us to move us back into caves, but instead want to move into Walden’s little cabin? I know you say that you don’t, but with exception of distributed power generation (see my post) you don’t offer much alternative.

    Still, hey, we agree. Check out the post and see.

  12. Tim Rohrer said,

    December 20, 2005 at 19:29

    Well, we do mostly agree. I like the new post but I’ll respond there. Getting you to post on distributed power generation was the point of my Walden Three comment. (Actually only half the point. Distributed power generation is half the power equation I see successful; the other half is intelligent building design like passive solar, R50 or better insulation, earthships and the like.)

    The downright silly argument should have the point that the energy required to build and maintain a nuclear power plant is frequently fossil-based–ie oil-based because of the energy density. A further point is that eventually oil will be so scare and yet useful as to be mined like gold, not just burned for its energy. Oil is a critical component in things in many now higher tech things from pipe-fittings to computers.

    Also nuclear sources may be very energy dense but they’re not very portable. You have to carry around too much weight to protect us from the toxicity of the stuff. No nuke powered demonstration cars in our future I am afraid….

    I also think you missed the point re time. Whether it is better for trees or people is really the wrong point to take from what said. The point is that progress isn’t even or even consistent for people, whether in general or in particular. Many people were less well off after the fall of the Roman empire than before it. Things imporve, fall aprt, improve again. But not necessarily for everyone…the Industrial Revolution in Britain is very much a case in point.

  13. TreeFrog said,

    February 21, 2006 at 20:30

    Terrific Blog you have. Peace Out.

  14. JiggyWittit said,

    March 5, 2006 at 23:15

    Kewl blog you got goin on up here.
    Peace, JiggyWittit

  15. torypetersen said,

    March 22, 2006 at 15:30

    Great reading.

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