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theWatt Podcast 60 Part 2

Bill Kemp, author of the books below, is on the show talking about biodiesel. More info on Bill's books can be found at AzText Press. Transcript available below.

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Disclaimer: This transcript was provided by a 3rd party and may not be 100% accurate. Please refer to the audio as well.

Ben Kenney: On the line with me is Bill Kemp. Bill has a lot of experience with renewable energy and living off-grid and he actually lives off-grid at an area close to Ottawa, about an hour away from Ottawa in Canada, and he has put all of his experiences down on paper with his book the Renewal Energy Handbook for Homeowners, which is a guide to living off-grid and going off grid and he also wrote the book Smart Power, which is a guide on how to make your home more energy efficient and his most recent book is called Biodiesel Basics and Beyond, which is what we will be talking about today. So, Bill, thank you so much for coming on the show today.

Bill Kemp: Thank you for having me.

Ben Kenney: So, Bill, your book Biodiesel Basics and Beyond, was that released last week?

Bill Kemp: Yes. It has only been out from the printers a week now, so the ink is very much whacked.

Ben Kenney: Excellent. Yeah, because I was just checking on and it is still not available on Amazon, yes, but I think it should be there pretty soon.

Bill Kemp: Yeah. It will be wending its way through the distribution channels and filling in the back orders, so I would say within a couple of weeks everyone would see it across North America.

Ben Kenney: Excellent. Of course, everybody can read more about the book and also buy the book from Aztext Press, which is…

Bill Kemp: Yes, that is right. You can go straight to our website to learn a little more about it at A Z T E X, if people are interested.

Ben Kenney: Also the other books that you have written as well.

Bill Kemp: That is correct.

Ben Kenney: Okay. So today’s conversation as I mentioned is going to be about biodiesel. So, Bill, why did you think that it is important for people to learn about biodiesel right now and bio fuels in general?

Bill Kemp: Well, it is certainly a very hot topic and of course, the price of oil has hit record levels and everybody is starting to be concerned about the cost of fuels whether it is for driving their cars or heating homes and of course oil and fuel feedstock, petrochemicals, in general are used in virtually everything we touch in our modern life whether it is electrical power generation or plastics, products, the food that we eat, and so on and on and on. All of these costs are starting to trickle through society and what is happening is that even the relatively affluent middleclass are becoming more affected by this cost because what tends to happen is that as the price of fuel rises, the discretionary income that people have in their lives becomes more compressed and of course it makes living a little more difficult. It means a few less dinners out and a little more crimp on the lifestyle. So people are beginning to become concerned and start to be aware of some of the different technologies that are available. Now, at the same time, whenever the price of fuel goes up, it tends to have two effects, one is that alternative energy sources tend to be explored more heavily and more funding is provided by the government and at the same time, unfortunately, it also causes a push for some of the cheaper, dirtier, power generating technologies to occur at the same time. You will see resurgence in coal and all of the monikers that go with it like clean coal and of course huge investments in the tar sands in Alberta. I guess the fundamental issue with biodiesel and biofuels in general is that there are a lot of pros and cons and you hear an enormous amount of debate in the media about the future of these fuels.

Ben Kenney: Yeah, and actually in the podcast last week, I was talking to Tad Patzek, who is one of the central characters of that debate saying that ethanol is energy negative.

Bill Kemp: That is right, exactly. You have got folks on the one hand that are extremely negative for biofuels and then you have got folks on the other hand that are extremely positive for it, and as always, when the story like that comes out, the truth is somewhere in between. While my book is focusing exclusively on biodiesel, there is a small discussion about the whole issue of biofuels and how it relates to modern society right now. I think this is the point that most people need to understand, that what a lot of these fuel sources are trying to do and alternative energy sources are trying to do right today is to maintain the North American way of life the way it is and the idea that if we can just simply get more energy we can continue to use the energy at the same levels that we are using now and continue on our merry way. We have 5% of the world’s population in North America. We consume 30% of its resources and energy and the problem is that North Americans are in denial. It does not matter how much biodiesel or ethanol or nuclear power we produce. The fact of the matter is that we cannot continue to run North American society the way it is now.

Ben Kenney: That is the story that we have been hearing a lot about on this show, on theWattPodcast, we just have to stop driving so much and start using the bicycle…

Bill Kemp: Absolutely.

Ben Kenney: To conserve energy.

Bill Kemp: Well, yes, exactly. You are not going to ride bicycles and motor cycles in Canada in the middle of winter for sure, but the fact of the matter is that the whole North American society really needs to wake up and start to recognize that the century of the automobile is now gone and that society has to start moving towards a much closer form of societal [05:46 unintelligible]. We have to rebuild the concept of the small scale community and living and working and commuting and socializing in your home. We have to start developing our mass transit systems and these are extremely important considerations because if we continue down this path of denial for much longer, what will end up happening is that we will burn up all of our available resources both fuels and dollars and we will not be able to build the infrastructure in time to head off the calamitous rise in the price of fuel. There just will not be money in the society and then we will be in an extremely tight pickle where only the very rich will be driving anywhere and I think that the underlying conclusion with respect to biodiesel and ethanol and all biofuel is that in reality, we are going to be able to save far more energy and get higher environmental benefits by simply changing society structure and layout and recognizing that we are not going to continue on the way we are and that by increasing the amount of mass transit and shopping and living closer to home that we would get the benefits 10 times over of all the biofuel advantages and that is simply the way it is going to go. Now, having said that, at the same time, biofuels do have a place, like the big critics I am negative on large scale biofuel productions simply because it is environmentally a very difficult situation to try to come to grasp with.

Ben Kenney: Anything that tries to replace 380 millions of gasoline will have a huge environmental impact.

Bill Kemp: Absolutely, absolutely. I think that if we are growing biofuels to run power systems, electrical power systems and transit systems, that is certainly one thing, but to try to continue to run all of the vehicles that we have in North America is just a foolish thought. I mean at best, we might make an indent of some 5% possibly and that is based on today’s consumption rise, but if it continues to grow obviously the biofuel impact becomes less and less as times go on. There are huge issues with respect to the two fuels. I mean ethanol is essentially just simply taking a food crop, corn, and converting it into a fuel to soothe our collective souls and let us drive our SUVs. In fairness, the corn is really a transitional type of fuel. I think that once we get into the concept of using cellulose, then we can use agricultural waste and that is good for both the farming community as well as other areas of bio productions such as little forestry products. It can burn them into ethanol and so on and I think as that technology matures then certainly it becomes a better environmental case. In case of the biodiesel, it is a bit of a difficult one to paint with the same brush because the interesting thing is that you are not simply displacing a food crop and using it exclusively for fuel. If we take a quick look at production from, say soybean, which is very popular in the United States and canola in Canada, they work essentially the same way. When you raise the crops you can press the oil seeds and what ends up happening is you do not just get oil out of it, you also get a protein stream of product that comes out at the same time and in the case of soya, the meal can be used for many, many applications everything from tofu to soya flower. It can be used for emulsifiers in food just about every baked good of some sort or another has soya protein in it. Of course, it can also be used for animal feeds and aquaculture and the like and then at the same time, we get approximately 25% oil off of the seed as well, which can be used to feed the food crop industry as well as biodiesel production and the same is more or less true with canola, they work pretty much the same way. Those are the two primary feedstocks from the agricultural sector. Now, again, growing millions and millions of acres to produce the oil for the biodiesel can cause the lopsidedness in the bio product input. In other words, you get the necessary amount of oil you want for the fuel, but you may end up making so much meal that you are actually driving. You cannot use it and now you are driving the value of that commodity product down and it can actually upset the economics for the farmers. So, it is a very, very delicate balance to make it even, not only sustainable, but also financially sensible for the farming community.

Ben Kenney: There are other ways of making biodiesel like other feedstock such as yellow grease for instance, right, though?

Bill Kemp: That is correct, exactly. Yellow grease is a very, very good application of a feedstock and all yellow grease is simply the collected waste, oils and fats, from the food and agricultural industry that are converted into a commodity product called yellow grease, which is generally a by-product process from the animal-rendering facilities. It is used as the direct feedstock into the biodiesel facility. Yellow grease also has other places where it can go, which is pharmaceuticals and chemical feedstock and animal feedstock and the like. So, there are many, many other applications for it as well. So, the beauty of that is that we are actually using what would have been a waste product we are converting now into a product that will produce the biodiesel.

Ben Kenney: You are starting to see people going around restaurants picking up the waste grease from restaurants like McDonald’s and all those places like that to make biodiesel out of it.

Bill Kemp: Absolutely. That is a huge portion of the way the book is laid out. It is to talk about this whole issue of micro scale biodiesel production. That is a good segway too, Ben. Really, if we look at… What has happened is that I have tried to identify three segments of the biodiesel market and most people of course are familiar with the large scale commercial biodiesel production, which I have just arbitrarily said is more than a million gallons of biodiesel per year put you into this commercial scale, it is for the big boys and to me it is not really the solution. It may provide some non-government subsidization assistance to the farming community but in the long term it is not going to be in society’s best interest to use. Now, having said that, there is also a micro scale and a small scale industry segment if you will, and I put the word industry in quotes and italics very brightly, the small-scale production I would consider farming and cooperative areas where a farmer who could produce either by himself or collectively as a cooperative, biodiesel from off-specification or waste products and this is where we have to start to be a little more careful in the way we look at biodiesel production. One of the things that we are trying to do with this is to help the farmers without providing subsidization and far better for them to just make money on their own. Now, in case of let us just take for example Canada with canola, we grow about eight million tons of canola plant per year in the country and every year between half a million and three-quarters of a million tons approximately are wasted. In fact, in Ontario there is a huge amount, probably 80% of the canola crop, last year was considered off-specification and was rejected by the food industry.

Ben Kenney: So where does it go? Does it just get thrown out?

Bill Kemp: Well some threw it out, some kept it for feed supplements, most of it got sold at bargain basement prices and exported out of the country and of course, where it goes is obviously into the biodiesel production and I think that this is an area where we can… Of course some of it is just so bad that it just get ploughed back into the ground. Now, I think that one of the things that I see potentially happening here is that we can create an alternative market for the crop grower, for the oil seed grower, by saying to them, okay look at the commodity price for your oil seed and first of all is quantity high price high enough for you to make money at? If the answer is yes, then fine, it can be sold directly into that market, but at the same time if the commodity price is below the cost of production, well now we have an opportunity to hub and spoke all of our biodiesel production together perhaps to a small central facility where a group of farmers could then convert the oil seed that would be essentially being sold at a negative price could now be converted into protein meal and oil and then ultimately into biodiesel for either their own consumption or possibly if they were sophisticated enough for sale and then likewise the meal can also be sold or used as animal feed. So we have the number of alternatives where the farmer can play a hedging game against the market and improve their finances by producing biodiesel in this format. So in this situation the crop is already grown in any event and while it may be smaller quantities, it certainly becomes something that helps to supplement their income very clearly. Now, that market does not really exist now. That is more of an imaginary segment of the market but I feel that we will start to see more of that happen and indeed there is one facility that is exploring this concept called Milligan Bio-Tech at Foam Lake, Saskatchewan that is trying to put together exactly that sort of a plan right now.

Ben Kenney: I am kind of off of order for what I wanted to talk about, but can we sort of get into a bit of the biodiesel history of it?

Bill Kemp: Oh, certainly.

Ben Kenney: Because I have actually heard of a conspiracy theory about how Rudolf Diesel died. He is the guy who invented the diesel engine and the conspiracy is that Big Oil whacked him because Rudolf Diesel invented an engine that could run off a peanut oil and that was a long time ago, that was about 100 years ago or more, but what has happened to biodiesel since then? I mean the original diesel engine was meant to run off of biodiesel.

Bill Kemp: Well, it was actually meant through run off of straight oil and I think that people mixed the two up quite a bit. The straight oil is literally that, it is taking, well in case of Rudolf Diesel, it is taking peanut oil and running the engine directly on the peanut oil and what the concept for straight oil and some people actually still do that, they are doing viscosity transformation and if we look at the parent oil, peanut oil or any plant or animal oil, it has a very, very high viscosity and it is not compatible with the diesel engine running on petroleum diesel fuel. There needs to some sort of a change. We either adapt the oil to the engine or vice versa. So first way to do things is to adapt the engine to the oil and the nut basically, what Diesel did, is that he recognize that using an engine with a very high compression ratio creates an enormous amount of heat when the piston comes up on the compression stroke and if you spray in some of these plant oil that has been preheated which lowers the viscosity by thinning it out due to the application of heat. The oil would ignite upon hitting this hot compressed area inside the engine and therefore provide the power stroke to operate the engine and that concept even actually continues to this day by making retrofit heat exchanger kits that can be added to automobiles and starting an engine off of diesel fuel, regular diesel fuel, and then switching over to plant oil once the engine warms up and allows the transformation to occur. The concept of this compression ignition engine running on plant oil… There were a lot of problems with it particularly in the early days. First off, depending on the oil feedstock, it gels at relatively cool temperatures and so there are problems with keeping it warm. There were also problems with the amounts of glycerin in the oil causing sticking of engine valves.

Ben Kenney: This is just plant oil that we are talking about, right, because I know biodiesel also gels at cool temperatures as well, right?

Bill Kemp: Yes. Well, actually any diesel fuel does. No, the whole conspiracy theory about how Diesel was knocked off, I am afraid I do not really know much about the detail about it, although I do recognize that he did come to an untimely end, but the fact of the matter is that the diesel engine continues to this day and of course the production of diesel engine is far higher in Europe, it is more than 50%. North America of course never got on to them because the experience here in at least light passenger vehicles was that they were anemically powered, smoky, and very poor. Of course, that is simply not the case today. In fact, if you look at, say a modern diesel engine, take a Mercedes E320, for example, that uses the new common rail diesel injection system. The diesel car is actually faster of the 0 to 60 miles per hour than the equivalent gas car gets 30% better fuel economy has same amount of engine operating noise and of course considerably longer life and of course emissions are completely down. In fact, with Mercedes’ new BlueTec technology, the diesel engines are actually cleaner than the equivalent gasoline engine and of course much lower greenhouse gas emission.

Ben Kenney: Yeah. I think one thing that will probably help the emissions for diesel engines in North America at least is the fact that diesel is going to be ultra low sulfur soon in the US and that should improve the emission as well.

Bill Kemp: Exactly. The whole concept of getting rid of the sulfur is extremely important for reduction of any sulfur-based emission from the engine and we will see that in the fall and of course another interesting side of that is that the lubricity or the friction-reducing abilities of diesel fuel on low sulfur is also reduced somewhat and adding biodiesel even in very small percentages can offset the loss of lubricity dramatically, so that is a very good thing. Now, in comparing just quickly the issue between straight oil and biodiesel, the difference there is that to do the viscosity transformation direction into biodiesel is that we are taking the parent oil and we are planting a chemical transesterification process to it and reducing the viscosity of the oil that way, which then produces the diesel-fuel compatible fuel called biodiesel and of course that is the preferred method to go because it requires no engine modifications and it has a very similar operating characteristics to regular diesel fuel.

Ben Kenney: Okay, so let us start talking about how biodiesel is made exactly. I mean we start with the oil, like plant oil, and then we have to add something like ethanol or methanol to complete into biodiesel?

Bill Kemp: Well, yeah. The process is actually very, very simple sounding, but in application it is a little more complicated than this, but essentially what happens is that any plant oil or animal fat is exposed to a lower alcohol such as ethanol or methanol more commonly in the presence of a catalyst and heat and agitation and during this process the alcohol and catalyst knock off the glycerin that is bonded to the oil molecule and replaces it with this alcohol. The glycerin is then pushed off and then after a period of time, we can do a decanting process, which removes the glycerin from the bottom of the batch process, which has fallen to the bottom, and then we have the raw biodiesel floating on top and this of course is relatively simple to do and so it has cost an awful lot of micro scale producers and micro scale producers in my mind are simply people that are producing fuel at home for their own consumption whether it be for transportation or home heating. The problem with this is that it is extremely easy to make very poor quality fuel and to create an environmental mess at the same time.

Ben Kenney: How can you check to see the quality of the biodiesel that you are making at home?

Bill Kemp: Well, I think the first thing we have to understand is that it is not just as easy as I said. If people are going to produce biodiesel, it is important that the quality of the stuff be as high as possible. Commercial biodiesel producers are trying to meet a fuel standard called the ASTM D6751 Fuel Quality Standard, which was set up as a working group to provide fuel standards for production of biodiesel as well as petroleum diesel, another product that is tested by ASTM organization. Most home brewers do not do that, although they wax and wane eloquently about producing the fuel to save the environment and on and on and on. What in reality people are doing is just making the fuel because it is cheap and they can put the booze to big oil. The reason that this can be made very cheaply is of course you can recover some of these waste restaurant oil, fire oil, and so on for no cost at all because the restaurant has to pay money to have it removed and recycled and so you can very easily go around, find a friendly restaurant or chip fryer and say to them, “Okay, I will pick up your oil for you and I won’t charge you anything for it.” Obviously, that is a good deal for the restaurant, way you go, and now you have got a free feedstock. The application of methanol and processed chemicals is relatively inexpensive and unfortunately people have been led to believe that it is really that simple. You can just mix the stuff up in a 50-gallon drum and way you go and you can produce this fuel. Well, that is not true. First off, the biodiesel that is produced using that rough process will never meet the ASTM standards. In fact, one of the things that we have done in the book is to show exactly what the fuel quality is like coming off of this home brew [26:43 unintelligible]. We found it in most cases it is some 50 times over the limits for various chemicals and the like.

Ben Kenney: What types of chemicals are in there? Is it because you are not removing all the glycerin, for example, or are there head particles in there as well?

Bill Kemp: Well, it is a whole fleet of different chemicals starting off with glycerin, which remains either in free form or bonded by incomplete processing, it is still attached to the paired oil and so when that gets into the engine and gets burned, you get a situation of carbon buildup, which can cause sticky fuel injectors and sticking piston rings and the like. We have got high, high, high qualities of methanol which makes the biodiesel flammable at very low temperatures, which is not supposed to be, biodiesel is non-flammable just by its intrinsic design when it is greased properly. We have got soaps and catalyst productions and all these junk is being burned in the engine, which has been proved over and over and over again to cause everything from filter plugging, which can cause the loss of engine power while you are driving down the highway and causing you to have the car stalled on the side of the road and a towing job to get it removed and that would be one of the minor things right through to defective fuel pumps, which might set you back a thousand dollars. It might sound good in a very, very short term, but the long term life of the engine is usually compromised by using these poor quality fuels. The other issue that disturbs me about this is the whole issue of environmental sensitivity. People are saying they do it because burning biodiesel is good for the environment. Okay, granted if it is the ASTM grade, I can agree that it is cleaner burning and have lower carbon content than petroleum diesel, but when you are pumping all of the suite of chemical through the diesel engine that are not normally there in the case of petrodiesel, the emission control systems on the engine are just not designed and tuned to handle these strange things like soap and alcohol going through the engine. So, we have a problem there. We also have the problem of the [29:11 unintelligible]. Approximately 20% by volume of the biodiesel production process is glycerin and this raw glycerin is very caustic, it contains huge amounts of methanol, which is a very toxic chemical and if you go and visit most biodiesel producers at home when asked what they do with glycerin they are going to look askance, check their nails, they are going to mumble something that they threw it out in the back forty of the woods. It is just a nuclear fuel disaster being put all over again. Really, this stuff is extremely toxic and nobody has had a waste reduction method to neutralize it and to get rid of it properly. So, I am quite concerned about the shortcuts that are taken by people in the industry and I think I am also very concerned about the whole issue of people that are making statements on websites and books that just are not true. They are just completely without basis and without fact.

Ben Kenney: I have been collecting bacon fat for a long time now and I was led to believe that I can just mix it with ethanol and put in a catalyst in there and I will get biodiesel, but that is not the case.

Bill Kemp: Yeah, that is not the case. Well, not that quite easily that is for sure. I am afraid your efforts are somewhat misguided unfortunately and that is the problem. I mean you just cannot believe the amount of misinformation that is on the web and in books. I mean there are even several books that have been published that are propagating this. For example, there is one, I have got a section in the book called Debunking the Home Brew Myth. I have coded off different statements, for example, there is one here that says the glycerin remaining after the transesterification process is biodegradable and nontoxic, contains no PCBs and will not harm animal and plant life. Well, we have tested this stuff and found that it contains such high levels of methanol that it needs to be registered as a hazardous waste product according to both the US Environmental Protection Agency Laws as well as being an F-listed chemical that even one drop of an F listed chemical is enough to create a regulated hazardous waste that must be stored off in accordance with federal and state laws. I have got about 50 of these things that I go through in the book that bust these myths. It is very important that if you are going to produce the biodiesel that it is produced at a high quality standard and that we are looking at the entire life cycle so that we are maximizing the efficiency and the input and we are minimizing the effect on the environment on the output. My book covers that at the home scale level and indeed I produce here at home ASTM grade biodiesel. We have had it tested. There was no…

Ben Kenney: So it is possible to produce at home?

Bill Kemp: Oh, yes, practically. It does not take tens of thousands of dollars of equipment to do it either. What it may take is a bit more assistance from some friends to build all the equipment and get everything put together and a few dollars more than just simply putting raw oil in a 50 gallon drum and mixing it up like a witch’s cauldron, but it is very doable, it is very possible and the beauty of the system that I have put together is that I have tried to use what home brewers currently do. A lot of them used or for that matter new electric hot water heating tanks with a re circulating pump and I recognize that is a fairly popular way of doing it. So, what I have tried to is say, “Okay, let’s take the process that most people are doing now,” and what we will do is apply a little bit more scientific regime to the concept and we will improve the design so that we are recycling the waste methanol, which helps lower the cost of production. We will reduce the amount of electricity that is being input into the process so that it does not cost a lot to make the biodiesel and that we will produce methods for neutralizing the waste materials and reducing the quantity of waste materials that come out of the backend of the process and we are actually going to show people how to use the glycerin once it has been neutralized to actually put it into a practical use and I do not mean for that soap-making, which is another popular myth that people say, “Oh, you can make soap with it.” If people try it, it is going to be very, very poor quality for sure and you will certainly get far too much of it so we have got a better process by showing people how to make dust suppressant that can be used on everything from gravel roads to horse riding rings where people might actually be willing to pay you for this product that used to be a hazardous waste.

Ben Kenney: Interesting. Okay, so where is biodiesel going to be used mostly do you think? I mean we have identified that farmers could be using it a lot and also it could be used as a lubricant in ultra low sulfur diesel fuel. What do you think the future of biodiesel hold? It will be probably be mixtures and diesel fuel, do you think?

Bill Kemp: Well, yes. I think you are going to see biodiesel blended into the regular diesel fuel stock and the home heating fuel stock. I think it will be blended at much lower rate than will be ethanol. Ethanol blends into gasoline very, very easily and of course with flex-fueled cars being available commercially now it becomes almost a non-issue of being able to run high blends of ethanol into the fuel system. Biodiesel is not quite that simple. There are differences between biodiesel and petroleum diesel. They range anywhere from just the oxidation stability, that is, the ability of the fuel to last without oxidizing and going bad in a fuel tank. It has low temperature issues that are not as good as regular petroleum diesel. I think what we will see over time is that we will have relatively modest blend levels and I would think that we would probably see nothing higher than maybe 5% in North America blended into petroleum diesel, but even at that rate if that happen right across the board that is till a huge increase in the amount of biodiesel production that would be required.

Ben Kenney: Actually I looked through the study once on my website, let me just find it. Okay, so today there are about 37,000 million gallons of diesel fuel being sold.

Bill Kemp: Right.

Ben Kenney: If we want to 2B2 or 2% biodiesel then the amount of biodiesel that we would need would increase by about 4900%, over 1999 levels.

Bill Kemp: That is right. It would be just be a huge amount of production and as you have pointed out already, 2% is only 2% of the 1999 consumption of diesel fuel. The problem with biodiesel in the long term being the sustainability panacea that people like to pretend it is, it is just not going to happen because demand is going to continue to rise and the amount of biodiesel production is unlikely to keep up and so that gap is going to widen forever, but having said that there are still sizable market for biodiesel. We will also see it blended as we do now into home heating application. There are companies up to the Northeast like Frontier Fuels that are blending what they call green heat solution so you can get it at either 5% or 20% blended into your home heating oil and have it delivered. So, there will be applications for that as well.

Ben Kenney: Okay. Well, excellent. Thank you so much for coming on the show, Bill. It is very, very interesting. It is usually interesting actually of what you have been doing with the off grid living and biodiesel. So, hopefully you can come back to talk about how to live off grid and talk about some of your other books for the show.

Bill Kemp: I would be delighted to, any time.

Ben Kenney: For all the listeners check out Bill’s new book, Biodiesel Basics and Beyond, and you can get it from or Thanks for listening everybody.