Introduction: How to Divide the Estate Fairly and Happily

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Shown here is a way to allocate items in an estate so everyone is happy. Even the deceased.

Normal situation
All too often the division or allocation of specific items from an estate is a source of division or stress among the heirs. We've all heard horrible stories about an heir absconding with the bulk of the "treasure", or about two heirs wanting the same object or about games the elderly play when they tour each heir separately through the treasure room asking "What would you like after I'm gone?" and then separately committing the same item to different heirs. We've all heard stories of siblings breaking off communication over disagreements and misunderstandings related to dividing an estate.

Fair Situation
The division can be easily achieved with each item going fairly to the heir that most values it. The other heirs can be cheerful to see each item go to its most desiring new owner.

Step 1: The Defective Normal Method of Allocating Items

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Problem 1) Even though Betty and Wilma are equal share heirs, there are problems.
Their recently deceased father had "accidentally" promised the gold tea pot to both daughters.

Problem 2) He did not promise the Picasso to either and it got ripped in the struggle.

Problem 3) He may have accidentally promised more items to one daughter even though the will says they each get 50% of the residual estate.

Problem 4) One daughter expressed interest in an item and it was promised to her, The other daughter was even more attracted to it but was too polite to mention it.

Problem 5) two heirs want the same sentimental item but can't figure out which of them wants it more. (one says: "I really, really want it." the other says: "No, I really, really, really want it.")

Step 2: Find and Read the Will

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The will identifies what assets and items are in the estate.
The will may also allocate certain items to certain heirs already. Have the executor honor those bequests.
The will also probably has a section allocating the balance (residual) of the estate to a set of several heirs in some defined fractions.

This instructable is about dividing the items in that residual estate fairly so that each of the heirs gets the right items and the right fraction of estate value and nobody feels left out or feels cheated. Relationships can be preserved and enhanced.

Step 3: The Theory

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The balance of the estate items [typically including: jewelry, furniture, tools, art, electronics, books, memorabilia, household goods, clothing, cars even bikes] can be fairly divided among the heirs using a walk through auction method where each heir interested in an item expresses their level of interest in each item by bidding "Estate Bucks" on the items.

That's right. A walking tour through the homestead where the executor (or a fair heir) picks up each unassigned item in front of all heirs and lets any of them bid on getting it. The highest bidder is the one that wanted it the most.

The "unsuccessful" bidders are happy too.
They (and the "winner") all will split the estate bucks (as per the fraction shares outlined in the will) committed by the winner when the final estate liquidation and settle up occurs in a few months.

You are not having to buy your inherited items from the deceased, you are buying them from the group of heirs that includes you and you all get a distribution of the "proceeds".

Step 4: The Practice

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Gather all heirs.
Start in one room with a pencil and tally sheet.
1) Pick up an item to be distributed.
2) Ask: "Anyone interested in bidding?"
3) A couple of heirs start bidding and out biding one another until the highest price bid is the remaining bid. (normal auction)
4) Hand the item to the winner and write their name, the item and the price bid on the tally sheet.
5) Pick up the next item to be distribute and repeat steps 2-4 for it.

The process goes pretty quickly.

Photo shows the start of the tally sheet after Betty out bid Wilma and agreed to "pay" the estate $150 for the pot. Betty goes home with the pot today. Heirs do not need to pay today.

There is a 4 tab Spreadsheet linked below.
It has an Example Tally Sheet and a blank Tally Sheet for you to customize.
It has an Example Settlement Sheet and a blank Settlement Sheet for you to customize.

Step 5: Why It Works

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Everyone attending the auction (or phoning or mailing their bids in) has an equal chance to acquire any and all items.
Any heir has a chance to amicably outbid another and the other should be happy to have been outbid for two reasons:
a) The item is going to someone who wants it more than anyone else.
b) The other heirs have not lost the item to the winner. They've "sold" it to the winner and they will receive shares of the bid money, in the final estate distribution settle-up in a few months.

The winner can walk away, that same day, with the item without any "out of pocket" expense. They have agreed to have their share of the final estate liquidation settle-up amount reduced by the number of estate bucks they bid. The winner's settle-up check will be a little smaller because of the dollars they bid. The other heirs' checks will be a little larger as the winner's bid money is reallocated to everyone including them per the will's normal residual estate division fractions. No special provisions are needed in the will.

Step 6: What About Stuff Nobody Wants?

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Unwanted stuff is quickly identified and can be set aside to be:

a) sold at a garage sale (with proceeds remaining in the residual estate for residual distribution.
b) donated to charity
c) Craigslisted Craigslisted
or Freecycled[

d) left at the curb with a "free" sign ("gratis" if you prefer the original Latin)

Step 7: The Final Settleup

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The executor settling the estate a few weeks or months later can sum up what each heir's tally sheet says the heirs owe the estate.

An example with two heirs is shown below:

The total "estate bucks" that each heir owes the estate are added to the liquidated value of the estate that is to be distributed to the heirs, thereby increasing the gross value to be distributed to all heirs.
However, in calculating how big a distribution check each heir gets, that heir's tally sheet winning bids are subtracted from the heir's distribution check amount.

There is a 4 tab Spreadsheet linked below.
It has an Example Tally Sheet and a blank Tally Sheet for you to customize.
It has an Example Settlement Sheet and a blank Settlement Sheet for you to customize.

Step 8: Example Settle-up

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Betty and Wilma are heirs to two equal shares of an estate (50% / 50% split).

In the distribution auction Betty won a number of items tallying $1,400. Wilma chose to win items tallying $600.
Both went home with the items they won on the auction walk through day.

Months later, the estate which includes other liquidated assets of $60,000 is settled as follows:
Total Estate of $60,000 cash from liquidated assets plus $600 tally + $1,400 tally = $62,000.

Betty's share of gross estate is 50% of $62,000 = $31,000
Wilma's share of gross estate is 50% of $62,000 = $31,000

Betty's Settleup check is : $31,000 minus $1,400 tally owed = $29,600
Wilma's Settleup check is : $31,000 minus $600 tally owed = $30,400

Betty is happily holding: $29,600 check plus items she valued at $1,400 (total = $31,000)
Wilma is happily holding: $30,400 check plus items she valued at $600 (total = $31,000)
The process is fair and painless and each heir has the items they valued most. Both are happy with each other and happy with themselves. The deceased would be proud of them for amicably settling the estate and maintaining good relationships. They probably improved their relationship since they were each able to get items they valued without hurt feelings.

Step 9: Fair Bidding Strategy

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How high should I bid?
Since I get half the money back as an equal split (50/50) heir what is the right price to bid for items?

Just bid the item's real value to you.

Example: you are a 50/50 heir and the item is a $100 bill with no sentimental value but definitely worth exactly $100.

Bid 100 estate bucks for the currency. Win the currency. Put it in your pocket. The Executor notes that you owe the estate $100 "estate bucks" for the currency. a few months later on settle-up day, the 100 estate bucks are summed into the estate and split in half.
e.g. the rest of the estate was $30,300. Add your tally sheet owing 100 estate bucks and the total is $30,400. It is split 50/50 so your share is $15,200 minus the $100 you owe = 15,100. The other heir gets their half ($15,200).

Notice you are not buying items from the deceased. As an heir, you are already entitled to your share of each item. You are buying the other shares of the item from the estate. The estate gives up the item to you and it grows by the number of "estate bucks" you tallied.

Step 10: What About Sentimental Value?

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Yes the bidding system works for items that have sentimental value.

Imagine 3 siblings bidding on a childhood book they all grew up with. It could have zero monetary value and oodles of sentimental value. The heir for whom it is most important (compared to money) will outbid the others and "buy" the book from the estate. The other two siblings are happy the book went to the one who appreciated it most and they are happy to get bigger settlement checks later. They are happier with the larger settlement checks than they would be with the book.

Ethical puzzle:
Suppose the will bequeaths a doll collection to a museum, but the collection is also desired by the heirs. How about testing it in the auction process first and finding that an heir is ready to pay $1,200 for it. Take the collection to the museum, tell them about the bequest and offer them the choice of the collection or $1,200. I bet they will take one or the other. Either choice seems good to me because the collection goes where it really is most valued.

Step 11: Bonus Points

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1) Should non-heirs be allowed to attend and bid in the auction?
(aka "Oh give me a home, where the dear and the interlopers play..")

Yes, they should be allowed. If a non-heir wants something enough to outbid the heirs, the heirs should be happy about getting more money than the item was worth to any of them. The non-heir should pay the executor that day and receive the item as soon as the executor trusts the check will clear. No need for non-heirs to wait for either paying or getting items until settle-up day.

2) Can heirs bid on items they don't really want...just to benefit from making other heirs bid higher and closer to their real value?

Sure, that is a fun game with interesting risks.
But, it could upset an heir who was hoping to win items for much less than they really valued them.

3) In the extreme case you could move all items onto Ebay and have the heirs plus the rest of the world bid on items. (That seems a little crass even to me. But it gives me an idea for an amusing provision to put in a will. It would make your estate administration into a piece of performance art.)

4) We employed a "return to giver" rule where items given by an heir to the deceased were returned to the giver.

Step 12: Pep Talk to the Heirs

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Talking points for the kickoff of estate administration. This is best done early, (like the day after the memorial service) before any actions are taken by heirs.

As executor It's good to give a pep talk to the heirs to lay out some interests and goals of successful estate administration.

1) What Mom wanted most was that we all remain close as a functional family.
2) So administering the estate in a fair and constructive fashion is important and in keeping with her wishes. It preserves and enhances relationships in a time of stress.
3) Done right, we can use tackling this problem, as a bonding experience.
4) Done wrong, it will leave lingering animosity.
5) The will and estate documents allocate the estate in the following shares: x% to Betty and x% to Wilma....
6) Is everyone OK with that? (listen for the answers)
7) Mom worked hard to earn her money and we should respect that by administering the estate in a productive, low cost, efficient, low waste and timely manner that preserves the most for us heirs.
8) No one has a monopoly on good ideas. We should all be open to each others' suggestions as we proceed.

Step 13: Disclaimer

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1) I am not now, nor have I ever wanted to be, an attorney.

2) This instructable contains no legal advice. Anything inferred as legal advice has been misunderstood.

3) This instructable is provided to be of assistance in a delicate area of communication.

4) Any use of this instructable (proper or improper or misunderstood use) is the sole responsibility of the users.

5) By this disclaimer we proclaim that this good deed of sharing shall not be punishable.
(perhaps one good deed could go unpunished)

Step 14: How to Leave Instructions

It makes sense to leave instructions for your heirs to follow.
Key points in the instructions letter.
Tell them:
1) You love them and want them to rise to the challenge of administering the estate in a way that improves their relationships with one another.
2) Executor has the authority and responsibility to carry out the wishes and perform the administration.
3) You want them to work together and support the executor in the smooth, efficient, fair administration of the estate in accordance with the will.

It's not uncommon for one heir to have provided the bulk of the personal assistance to the deceased in the final year(s). Consider addressing that issue as a special debt of the estate owed to the heir providing that care ("Care-heir"). Suggest a payment amount or payment calculation formula to be made by the estate in final settleup to the Care-heir.
i.e. "In reimbursement and compensation for valuable support services provided by _______, I instruct the estate to make a special distribution calculated as $400/ month multiplied by all months starting October, 2007 through the month of my death."

"The balance of the estate is to be distributed in equal shares to my heirs including my Care-heir."
This way nobody is left out even though one or more heirs were in positions or had capabilities to provide more support services.


SeanC221 (author)2017-01-17

What is done with the money that was used for auction? Is it divided equally between the heirs? This would mean someone who bid on something would get a portion of their money back, correct?

joanjr (author)2015-12-15

Our family of 4 siblings just did this and I definitely have comments. We did this while my father is still alive.

First, I highly advise that you have either the siblings or a spouse but not both. And have everyone agree on process.

Second, I suggest each sibling gets to select one object at the outset and then auction everything else.

Third, the idea of family members being nice during an auction might be something some families are capable of, not mine. My brothers bid up objects they didn't even want just for the fun of watching the rest of us lose more money. Be careful!

Eliza BethK (author)2015-10-14

I'm searching for your app and I can't find it. Is it still available? What can I do?

MsMonsterMasher. (author)2015-02-12

I like this idea after hearing it: A man had 3 adult children. He left instruction for one child (likely the most honest or fair one) to speak to each sibling to determine what items were most sentimental amongst his personal belongings. The residue of the estate was divided equally 3 ways; land, house, car, money, etc.

Then the one child had to divide all the personal items into 3 piles based on the information he received from his siblings and his own personal preference. Once that was done his sibling 1 and sibling 2 flipped a coin for first choice of either group 1, 2 or 3. Then sibling 2 chose a group. Finally, the child who had divided the entire lot was given the final remaining group of personal items.

I sure bet that child worked darn hard to consider everyone's wishes, split the groups evenly and fairly as best as he could because he was left with the last group available.

They were also allowed to trade or give items from their own piles to each other if it was mutually acceptable to both parties.

NICE IDEA! I really like it. I am considering using it in my own will for my 3 kids.

The method I shared is similar to the final corrective trading step in the method you mentioned. My method is simpler because it skips all the prior steps of attempting to create equal value (sentimental and monetary value) piles. In my method the heirs each get to individually express how much value they place on the items they want and to have the heir who truly wants it the most, get it and compensate the others for it. All should be happy or keep bidding higher until they are happy. Nothing is left to chance. Less prep work is needed.

P.S. - If there were items nobody wanted, those were first sorted out and later sold and the money was split 3 ways.

JeremyOlm (author)2014-11-23

When it comes to estates, it is never an easy task splitting the assets within to the related family members. Sometimes the entire process could just end up in bickering or even a permanent feud. Therefore, the families involved need to ensure they hire professionals to do the job for them such as an attorney who have more experience and knowledge in this field.

JeremyOlm (author)2014-11-23

A will can definitely help to save a lot of trouble and prevent possible family feud. For the assets and belongings, it is quite easy to allocate accordingly as they are in per piece physical form. However, for the property itself it would require the assistance of an estate agent to help sell and have the profits shared equally amongst the family members. Only in that way will it be a fair and square deal.

JeremyOlm (author)2014-11-23

I have witnessed a few incidents of family members getting into a feud with one another over a will. It is very sad to know that the family bond is simply broken over worldly treasures. That is why it is very important to ensure that the family hires a professional lawyer to help them go through that phase fair and square. It might also include an estate agent who can help them sell the house for profits to be shared equally amongst all members.

DeloresH (author)2014-11-19

I am wondering how this can be used for children of the heirs who want "grandmas teapot" or other items. Does the respective heir 'buy" it and distribute to their children or do the children have to "buy" the item?

Woodenbikes (author)DeloresH2014-11-19

It can easily work either way depending on who the estate's named heirs allow to participate in the bidding.

In your example let's assume the grandchildren are not named heirs.
The named heirs could choose to limit the bidders to only named heirs. (Then one could outbid the others for the teapot and give it to whomever.)
Or a better option is to allow more bidders into the process directly so their is more direct information (less information lag and distortion) more liquidity (more robust bidding helping to land items where they are valued.) Non heir bidders can settle up (pay money to the estate and take items home at the timing spelled out by the executor, e.g. same day or later.)

jmkindy (author)2014-06-12

Love the question - we are thinking of adding a stipulation that the more valuable pieces would require a minimum bid 75% of the actual estate or garage sale value to avoid a situation where a relatively valuable item that only one of the group wants would go for a ridiculously low bid. E.g., say a nice piece of furniture went for $1 that nobody else could take; that would severely undervalue the item and mess up the works a bit. Are we overthinking it? (hope you're still monitoring this!!)

Woodenbikes (author)jmkindy2014-06-12

Good idea. I've heard it called "Disciplining the market". You can try to pre-establish the minimum price (like 75% of the garage sale value) or you can just bid against the low bidder if you are willing to risk winning it and then having the garage sale or donating it to charity etc.

Woodenbikes (author)2013-07-27

I read the description of the app you are selling and it does not mention the heir auction fair valuation and distribution technique (with deferred settlement) that is the focus of my instructable. Let me know if you would like to collaborate to design that kind of assistance into the app.

BayRatt (author)2013-07-26

Interesting idea. I was just wondering in the case of wealth disparity, if perhaps each heir could be given equal number/value tokens or play money to bid with instead, and with everybody being on a "budget", it would level the playing field.

Woodenbikes (author)BayRatt2013-07-26

In step 5 I mentioned that heirs do not need to make payments on the auction day for the items they win in the bidding. They can walk home with the items that day with no cash needed. However the amount of their winning bid in dollars is added to the total estate value to compensate the estate for the item leaving with the winner. Then months later at final settlement, if there were 3 equal heirs, they each get a unique amount equal to their 1/3 of the estate total dollar value minus their unique auction bill for items won.
I don't think tokens would work as well since an heir who didn't want items would at final settlement, end up getting just their say 1/3 of the stock portfolio plus all of the expired worthless tokens on settlement day.

mdollar (author)2012-10-18

Real nice article. Thanks!
It appears that "estate bucks" are based upon the amount of total known CASH assets only, since the value of the entire estate has yet to be determined when this takes place. Knowing the amount of "estate bucks" available prevents over-extending beyond what the estate is worth during this process. Heirs could supplement with their own cash when "estate bucks" run out I suppose.
IF only "estate bucks" are allowed to be used in the bidding (and non-heir bidding with cash is restricted, for instance to items not bid upon by heirs), then a wealthy heir would have the same purchasing power as all the other heirs (at least until the "estate bucks" ran out).
I've sent this article to my sister for her comments, thinking (as future executor of our father's estate) it is not too early to begin gaining consensus before the need arises.
Thanks again for the thoughtful piece.

Woodenbikes (author)mdollar2012-10-27

I'm glad you are seeing the merits. I think the useful consensus is from the estate trustee (e.g. Your father if it is his estate). His consensus helps minimize the volume of sub optimally distributed items made as one-off promises or misunderstandings between dad and individual heirs meeting with him one by one. The estate buck bidding technique only optimizes the distribution of the assets not assigned through other techniques. I personally believe it makes sense to maximize the volume of the estate distributed optimally and to minimize the one-off assignments of items to individuals.
The volume of estate bucks could be estimated as the market value of the amount of the entire estate.

Tim Temple (author)2012-04-04

In my case, my parents died with no valid will, so I was asked to divvie it up. My sister, niece and nephew wanted percentages that would have left me with 0% even though I could have taken 100%. After much thought & prayer, I took 50%, abandoned 50% for my sister on the proviso she abandon 25% of what she got to each of her kids. My sister procrastinated down to the wire.

As for the belongings, I handed out colored dots -- one color for each of us. Put your sticker on what you were interested in and then later we would negotiate if something had more than one sticker on it. My sister cut the stickers into quarters and pasted them all over the place. But then she didn't have room for 1/3 of what she stuck. I should have told her to only stick what she had room for.

The remaining contents were sold to a jobber. Later, I ran across my old abacus in an "antiques" store in town.

Woodenbikes (author)Tim Temple2012-04-05

Your story about the classic "dots method" (or request method) shows that the method's shortcoming is that it is only one-dimensional. It only shows WHO wants and item. It fails to show how important getting the item is to the person. In that method some people over-request and then dump stuff. The problem is they deprived other heirs who may have wanted the items and deprived themselves of extra money they may have enjoyed more than the item. So in the dots method there is either one winner or no winners as opposed to everybody getting the best mix of what they want.

akarppinen (author)2011-06-22

If problems go on and on, one option is to turn everything into money. Very easy to divide equally.

annie (author)2010-06-02

As the "default" executer of my fathers estate with, 6 other siblings (2 of which are disinherited)  I found your Instructable very practical and fair!  Thanks for the post ;)

chickenlover (author)2010-05-25

Aside from the problem when the family is already dysfunctional and do not play well with others, this might not work well when there is great economic disparity between the heirs.  Ultimately, you are buying each others' shares from each other.  The heir who really needs money more than anything will not want to sacrifice their share of the money left at the end to buy the items from the other heirs.  Whereas mom might have wanted all of the heirs to get some of the sentimental items, regardless of their economic circumstances.  So consider this when adopting this method.  Some estates just let heirs each select an item in turns until everything everyone wants is taken, without assessing the value against each heir.  The method in this DIY is fine only if money is equal in value to each of the heirs.

Woodenbikes (author)chickenlover2010-05-26

You bring up two problems:
A) Dysfunctional family members and B) Wealth disparity

A) The proposed system is meant to maximize the individual and total satisfaction/happiness of all of the heirs with the distribution of the items.  (assuming they concede to the decedant's wish that the heairs each get a specific percentage allocation of the estate value.)  If they dissagree with the will on the percentage, they need to go to court no matter what system you use.  If they have trouble allowing the process to occur without an authority figure present, one could be brought in,  If they have trouble allowing the process to occur with an authority figure present, I wonder what system would elicit their cooperation.  (i.e. it;s not a problem of the auction system.)

B) The system is intended to allow each and every heir to maximize their personal happiness and satisfaction with the distribution of items and money.  In the example you raise, a money-needing heir may maximize everyone's happiness by accepting the money paid by item-loving heirs.  Maybe the Decedent should stipulate this distribution method in the will to indicate they are comfortable with their heirs maximizing heir happiness.  As a future decedent, I hope to allow my heirs to maximize their happiness with the distribution of items and money.  Any specific bequests I make are potentially sub-optimal for the interests and circumstances of the item and the individual in the distant event of my passing.

chickenlover (author)Woodenbikes2010-05-31

I understand your point; I would only say that the one flaw I see is the underlying assumption in this system that money is the appropriate measure of happiness for the heirs.  When there is wealth disparity among the heirs, one very wealthy heir may  dominate every auction because money to that heir is not necessary to achieve happiness.  Such a wealthy heir could buy all the personalty at auction at no real "happiness cost" because money is not scarce for that heir; whereas other heirs may be significantly less happy having no items of sentimental value.

No system is perfect.  Your method has many good features.  I am just saying that when a decedent has heirs with wide disparities in wealth, using relative monetary value as the equalizer might not fairly equalize happiness.  In such a case, the decedent may want to allow the heirs to choose items in turn after drawing lots without regard to value - or at least allow each to select a few items - maybe even limit this class of goods to those having little monetary value but potentially high sentimental value.

suedalsing (author)2009-09-07

Yeah that's all great, you can leave all the instructions you want, but when your fellow heirs and non heirs are creeps, it never turns out.

adamvan2000 (author)2009-05-17

I like it. It's fair, even, and adds some life to a very sombre time. Kudos on coming up with such a unique way of addressing a problem most of us will have to deal with at some point in our lives, even if it's for our own estates. ~adamvan2000

teamcoltra (author)2009-01-14

Mmmm the gran torinio. ;) I think this is an awesome idea... I still have another 70 - 80 years to think about what I want to do.... but still :)

Argool (author)2009-01-02

pretty good!

skunkbait (author)2008-12-22

Good Idea! That would be perfect for the division of items of monetary value. The insanity that sets in though, in regard to the sentimental stuff might just overwhelm the system.

Woodenbikes (author)skunkbait2008-12-22

It works for items with more sentimental value also. The person with the strongest sentimental value for the item typically out-bids the others who are happy enough to get the resulting money. In my family the bidding went way above garage sale value on the book my parents used to read to us. ("If I ran the Zoo...")

Lithium Rain (author)2008-12-21

The one problem with this method is that it only works if you're dealing with sane, rational, honest people. Which doesn't always very accurately describe grieving persons. :-\ Nice idea though! I'm sure it'd work in many cases. 5/5 *s.

About This Instructable




Bio: Long time bicyclist, bike commuter, bike tourer, recent bike builder/experimenter. I'm an energy consultant for hydro electric, solar and other renewable energy generation.
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