By Oleg Vukmanovic and Maja Zuvela
LONDON/SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Blizzards and ice-laden power lines in southeastern Europe pushed gas and electricity networks near to breaking point Wednesday as consumption soared, while some western countries scrambled to prevent similar breakdowns.
As electricity cables buckled under the weight of ice and snow in southeastern Bosnia, where some 15,000 customers were left in darkness, Serbia warned of a "possible collapse" of its energy system as record-breaking demand stretched the power grid near its technical limits.
Serbia's government adviser for energy issues, Petar Skundric, said the Balkan nation should reduce power consumption by 10 percent "to avoid problems and possible collapse of the energy system."
"In only a week's time Serbia has broken six historical records both in consumption and production of electricity," Skundric told reporters.
"The system is operating at the very border of its technical capabilities, and we should do our best to reduce both consumption by at least 10 percent from the current level and production by around some 500 MW," he said.
He said his panel will propose to the government to declare February 15-20 as non-working days in Serbia to help conserve energy.
A cold spell has hit the Balkans over the past two weeks and has lifted power consumption to record highs across the region, forcing its utilities to boost imports to meet soaring demand.
Top Bosnian utility EPBiH said its emergency service was working at full capacity to restore power.
"We have more than 300 workers on the ground," said EPBiH spokeswoman Midheta Kurspahic. "The problem is that some points of 110 KV power line, which collapsed under the heavy snow, are hardly accessible because the snow is over two meters deep."
Record-low temperatures, which have led Russia to cut gas exports to Europe, prompted emergency moves to keep gas in Italy and Croatia for home heating rather than for industry.
Russian pipeline gas export monopoly Gazprom diverted some supplies destined for Europe last week as its domestic consumption soared. Russian gas flows to Europe have increased, but they have not been fully restored.
Icy temperatures gripping the continent, which are blamed for hundreds of deaths, have sent demand for fossil fuels soaring as countries turn up gas and electric heaters against the cold.
In some western European countries, gas and power prices surged amid concerns over the reliability of foreign and domestic supplies as freezing conditions hampered the pumping of oil and gas.
The worst February cold spell Europe has seen in decades may last until the end of the month, leading meteorologists said, raising the prospect of further deaths and an extended period of high spot gas prices.
Russian gas deliveries to French utility GDF Suez remained 10 percent below usual levels, compared with cuts of 20 to 30 percent previously, it said late Tuesday.
Russian shortfalls did not pose serious problems given its relatively minor share in France's power generation sector.
That contrasts with more heavily reliant Italy, which took emergency measures to conserve gas after holding high-profile crisis talks in Rome to handle what it said were critical shortages of Russian gas.
Tunisia agreed to cede its share of Algerian gas supplies to Italy Wednesday, underscoring the seriousness of shortfalls facing utilities there. [ID:nL5E8D82NW]
Further supply setbacks emerged Tuesday as icy conditions curtailed offshore production in Croatia, piling pressure on already stretched supplies as demand for gas reached all-time highs in the country.
Croatian oil and gas company INA said output dropped by nearly a third after stormy seas disrupted work to six of its production platforms in the northern Adriatic sea.
"Efforts are going on to restore the energy supply, but access to the platforms is not possible because of harsh weather conditions," INA said, adding that industries will bear the brunt of production cuts.
Adding to pressures, a gas corridor stretching from the resource-rich Caspian to Europe's eastern border saw a sharp drop in flows due to technical problems, slashing supplies to Turkey at a time of high winter demand.
Turkey's gas imports were set to rise Wednesday as Iran and Azerbaijan prepared to pump more fuel through the pipeline.
Czech day-ahead power hit a fresh three-year high on Wednesday. Power prices in Hungary and Poland also saw sharp gains.
British gas prices, after soaring to six-year highs on Tuesday, fell about 30 percent Wednesday, pulled down partly by ample supply. German gas prices tracked sentiment in Britain, Europe's biggest market.
(Reporting by Oleg Vukmanovic; Editing by Jane Baird)