A new centre to harness Scotland’s wave and tidal energy has been officially opened in Orkney by the Deputy First Minister Jim Wallace.
The £5.5m European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) in Stromness is pioneering the testing of marine power devices.
Experts say wave power schemes could herald a whole new industry and help to meet green energy targets.
Mr Wallace said the facility signalled the “dawn of a new era for energy production in Scotland”.
At the opening ceremony he said: “Today is a hugely significant landmark in the development of renewable energy both for Scotland and the world.
“By providing world-class facilities here in Orkney we will be in a prime position to capitalise on the enormous opportunities provided by this rapidly developing and expanding sector.
“Indeed, Orkney itself has been identified as probably the best location in Europe for testing commercial-scale devices.
“Opening EMEC is just the first stage in ensuring the marine energy industry develops and achieves its potential here in Scotland.”
The test centre will give firms a way to measure the output of their machines in realistic conditions.
The site’s first customer is the Leith-based company Ocean Power Delivery, which has developed a full-scale prototype of its Pelamis, or sea snake, generator.
The firm now needs an independent evaluation of the power it produces.
The generator will be hooked up to an electricity sub-station on the Orkney coast, where the machine’s performance will be assessed against the waves and the weather.
The bulk of the money for the centre has come from the Scottish Executive and Highlands and Islands Enterprise.
Industry experts believe the scheme should help to give Scotland a head start in exploiting wave and, later, tidal energy.
Up to 7,000 jobs could be created in Scotland’s renewable energy sector under plans unveiled by the government.
The Department of Trade and Industry last week announced details of its £50m investment in wave and tidal power north of the border.
The move followed a report which suggested that marine energy could generate 10% of Scotland’s electricity by 2020.
Ministers are committed to 10% of electricity being generated from renewable sources by 2010, with that figure doubling to 20% by 2020.
Professor James C Curran, head of environmental futures with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) highlighted Scotland’s potential for offshore generation.
Prof Curran said: “With real drive and determination, Scotland could also capture a huge world market and generate income, jobs and working communities around our shores, at the same time as doing good for the global environment – the best possible combination.”
But the Scottish National Party (SNP) raised concern over the impact of the recently passed Energy Act.
SNP trade and industry spokesman at Westminster, Mike Weir MP, said the benefits could be hit by “nonsensical” legislation which he said added costs to generators in more isolated locations.
He said: “The government must give the renewable energy sector in Scotland the potential to thrive. It cannot get away with talking about the potential whilst undermining it with massive extra costs.”
The Scottish Green Party welcomed the opening of the Orkney centre but warned that the 7,000 jobs were at risk because of competition from Portugal.
Portugal has already provided incentives three times the level of those in Scotland and is set to take the lead by operating the first wave energy “farm” using technology developed in Scotland, it said.
Green MSP Shiona Baird has submitted a motion to the Scottish Parliament calling for more support for marine energy.