COMMENT: The professor's power failure

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The Independent Online
At last the "Alice In Wonderland" approach of the previous government to electricity competition has come to an end. Professor Stephen Littlechild, who has been presiding over the Mad Hatter's Tea Party that passes for the 1998 project has conceded what has been obvious for a long time. Not all of the 12 regional electricity companies will be ready for domestic competition next April.

He is trying to embarrass them into action by naming the guilty parties (step forward Southern Electric) Yet even this public shaming may not do the trick. The hurdles to come remain daunting. An old adage in the computer industry is that any project designed to last more than six months will probably never happen at all and will cost tens of millions in the process. Professor Littlechild says that companies still have to take delivery of systems, put them into operation, integrate them with other RECs systems and carry out final testing. Despite all this the Prof stands by the new target of getting all the RECs, with the possible exception of Southern, at least partially on board by July 1998, just three months late.

He may be right, but the RECs themselves clearly do not believe this. In fact, so sceptical is John Devaney, Eastern's executive chairman, that he reckons it will be late 1999 before the process is complete.

Worse still, the RECs are preparing for the mother of all arguments over how much of the cost they can load into customer bills. If they get their way, and pass up to pounds 900m on to customers, it would almost certainly wipe out any savings from competition.