SCOTLAND is on the brink of a power crisis after an accident at one of the country's biggest electricity plants massively reduced supplies to the national grid.
Emergency legislation will be rushed through the Scottish Parliament early this week to allow Longannet power station, Fife, to burn gas as well as coal in a bid to stave off potential blackouts.
Longannet has been shut down after a conveyor belt carrying coal collapsed. A nuclear power station is already off-line and widespread power shortages have so far been avoided because of the unseasonably warm weather. "We're glad it isn't cold," one minister admitted last night.
But the government's critics pounced on the power crisis, saying it was a symptom of the Executive's failure to deal with the projected gap between energy supply and demand.
The Longannet shutdown has triggered the nightmare scenario which energy chiefs have long feared. It comes with another of Scotland's power stations, the nuclear-powered Hunterston B, also shut down, following safety concerns.
Between them, the two stations normally account for almost half of Scotland's electricity generation and, crucially, provide constant back-up electricity at times when other stations are not operating.
The accident at Longannet has completely disabled the site. The conveyor belt is thought to have collapsed on top of a shower block. No-one was in the block and there were no casualties.
But with repairs still ongoing, ministers have decided to enable Longannet to run on gas. Legislation is required because the power station is only licensed to generate electricity from coal.
MSPs will be asked to rush the law through, probably on Tuesday, so that the station can be brought on line quickly.
Government sources said that only good fortune had prevented a major power crisis over the past week. They said colder conditions would almost certainly have led to 'rota cuts' where parts of the country would have had their power supply switched off at times of low demand.
And they added the problem had been exacerbated because Scotland usually exports energy to England. The set-up of the system makes it difficult to reverse the flow of energy.
One insider added: "In terms of generating capacity we are very much at the peak at the moment. The thing that is keeping us going is Cockenzie power station [in East Lothian] and hydro power. It's been good that it has rained so much over the last few weeks."
On the emergency legislation, the source added: "If we don't do it then the lights will go out because both Hunterston and Longannet are down."
A spokesman for ScottishPower, which runs the Longannet station, confirmed that talks had been under way with ministers over legislation.
He said: "We are looking at the options and we are exploring the possibilities of running on gas in addition to the coal which is already in the plant and that requires consent from ministers.
"We plan to repair the conveyor belt and have the plant working again as normal by round about the end of February."
A spokesman for National Grid said: "We are aware of the situation. The situation in Scotland is a little tighter than normal with two generators off. We are keeping an eye on things and keeping in touch with the Scottish generators."
The spokesman said measures to bump up Scotland's energy supply had not yet been necessary. If supplies did dwindle, one option would be to enact a 'rota disconnect', where electricity would be cut for a period in certain areas, he said.
But he added: "We have got many other things we can do before that. It is not something we are looking at currently."
A spokesman for the Department of Trade and Industry, whose consent for the use of gas as a main fuel is also required, said: "We have been in discussions with ScottishPower over this and although the necessary consents are still to be signed off we expect something to emerge this coming week."
Richard Lochhead MSP, the SNP energy spokesman said: "If the gravity of this situation has only come to light now then serious questions must be asked. Longannet is a workhorse of energy production and it is imperative that it keeps generating.
"However this development illustrates the need to harness a variety of renewable energy sources in Scotland."
A spokesman for the Scottish Green Party said: "Whatever decision is reached the key thing is that we need a comprehensive strategy to reduce energy consumption."
Alex Johnstone, Scottish Tory energy spokesman, said: "The Scottish Executive needs to take whatever steps are needed to get power from Longannet again. In the longer term, it's essential that we take responsible decisions to ensure that we have adequate power. They must address the issue of replacing our nuclear generating capacity. The fact a breakdown led to the consideration of power cuts showed us how close to the edge we are."