A blackout of a much larger magnitude than the November 2006 power failure in Germany, which plunged millions of people into darkness in several European countries, was narrowly avoided in January 2009 in South Eastern Europe, various experts told EurActiv.
Fortunately, electricity systems managed to cope with the situation, said a European Commission expert, who preferred not to be named. He said the risk was greatest during two very cold days at the beginning of the crisis, before district heating systems in some of the affected countries had been switched from gas to petrol.
Although electricity consumption was very high, the systems were able to withstand the pressure.
"It was a very nice surprise that in all countries of the region, electricity systems working at the limit of their capacities managed to cope, and the electricity grid remained stable. The possibility of a cascading crisis, if a minor incident had happened, was a genuine risk with very dramatic consequences," including "a blackout for the entire region," the expert explained.
Grids 'benefited' from the economic slowdown
Gabriela Cretu of the Energy Community Treaty - the legal framework that extends the EU energy market to the Western Balkans - told EurActiv that a number of factors helped the grids to deal with the difficult situation.
"The difficult situation with the grids at that moment in fact benefited from the economic slowdown, due to the global crisis. Consumption was therefore not so high as to threaten the stability of the interconnected systems in Europe. Moreover, the gas crisis took place during a period of winter holidays, with less activity in the economy and production," Cretu explained.
She mentioned another lucky coincidence in that "hydrology was good" at the time of the crisis.
The regional blackout risk would be much larger in the event of an accident in a big system, like Romania, Bulgaria or Serbia's, Cretu added.
The expert also explained that the UCTE (Union for the Coordination of Transmission of Electricity) to a certain extent provides a cushion, without being a panacea.
"UCTE operating standards require, on the one hand, the system to cover the foreseeable demand, and on the other hand, provide for interoperability of systems in case of failure. Depending on the system affected, it is helped by the overall system, but only to a certain extent," Cretu said.
Alfred Schuch from the Energy Community Treaty secretariat in Vienna told EurActiv that one of the advantages for the countries of the Western Balkan region of being part of this organisation is being invited, as equal partners, to the Gas Coordination Group, which twice met in Brussels during the crisis to exchange data. He also highlighted the recent establishment of a regional Security of Supplies Coordination Group, which will deal with both electricity and gas.
In an anecdotal aside, Schuch also recalled that many experts were on leave for the Orthodox Christmas celebrations at the time of the crisis. But they all provided the necessary information, working from their home computers or by going to the office, he explained. "This is proof that the Energy Community Treaty works," he said.
How the different countries reacted
Experts said the damage of the gas crisis is probably impossible to measure. Bulgaria was singled out as the country most affected. It has only one gas storage facility, which allowed the country to cover just a third of its normal consumption over the crisis. The country's industry was most affected, with factories having to shut down. District heating systems had to switch to oil.
But a Commission expert said stopping industrial activity at a time of economic crisis is "sometimes good".
In Macedonia, gas is only used in some industries, which had to stop their activities. Romania, on the other hand, was not significantly affected and was able to guarantee adequate supplies during the crisis.
As for Serbia, it is totally dependent on Russian gas imports. A storage facility in Banatski Dvor is almost ready, but is not yet complete. 60% of the gas in Serbia is used for industry, with the rest going on district heating, for example. Serbia received additional gas from Hungary during the crisis, covering about half of normal consumption.
Bosnia and Herzegovina uses gas for district heating, and there were several days of lengthy heating disruption in Sarajevo. But the country was also able to switch some of this to oil, and it also received gas from Serbia. In view of past conflicts, this has been highlighted by observers as a very important political gesture.
Croatia produces gas, but it still had to reduce its consumption and harness the potential of its storage facility. Croatia cooperates with Italy for offshore gas production, and thus the two countries were able to decrease output to Italy and increase the flow to Croatia.
"The consequences were not as dramatic as they could have been. Also, with the fact that oil prices were down, switching to oil did not prove expensive," the expert concluded.
Other energy experts said the countries in the region are not considering legal recourse with Gazprom, "because the relationship is more important than the possibility" of success. Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, is one country with a "huge debt to Gazprom" and so "its hands are tied," the source said.
"Gazprom is a very important investor in the region, not only with gas," he added.