Professor Jim McDonald, principal of Strathclyde University and co-chair of the national Energy Advisory Board, said that the as-yet-untapped resource could be “the next oil industry” – but only if the necessary infrastructure is built to support it.

As the First Minister arrives in Copenhagen for a make-or-break UN climate conference, Scotland’s renewable energy ambitions have been brought into sharper focus than

ever before.

Citing the existing links from Scotland to Northern Ireland and England to France, Professor McDonald said: “The technology’s there, it’s proved and it’s ­understood. It’s challenging, but the technologies are mature enough to deliver a sub-sea grid.”

A report brought in front of the board of Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) last week claimed that the country “could easily meet 100% of our electricity needs, based on the resource available” if it was able to draw on wind and wave power, and First Minister Alex Salmond has already held meetings with European leaders in Brussels to discuss the proposed North Sea grid.

He said: “An electricity grid across the North Sea would maximise use of renewable energy from wind and wave power in Scotland and hydro power in Norway, and carry that vast resource across the North Sea to mainland Europe.”

The Scottish Government regards the creation of a North Sea grid as “a priority”, and has already considered an east coast network linking offshore wind and wave generators in the north with electricity consumers in the south. This could be further built up to include a “hub” in the centre of the sea with links to Norway, Denmark, Germany, Holland, and France.

Teams behind plans for 10 new offshore projects in Scottish waters have already sealed “exclusivity agreements”, with a potential generating capacity of 6.4GW, according to SNH. By comparison, the country’s largest existing offshore development, the Robin Rigg windfarm in the Solway Firth, has a capacity of 180MW.

Offshore renewables, such as wind and wave turbines and tidal generators, are popular with many in the green lobby as they throw up fewer conflicts of interest than many on-shore developments.

SNH noted at its board meeting that the growth in onshore windfarms has produced a “cluster” effect round populated areas because developers’ interest “is focused in those areas which have good access to the grid, good transport options and a good wind resource”.

Improved offshore infrastructure would help steer developments away from Scottish towns, sticking them out of sight and away from “nimby” attacks on planning proposals, but the main barrier to their development has been financial constraint.

This is particularly acute because Scotland has relatively deep coastal waters compared to other parts of the UK.

David MacKay, the chief scientific advisor at Westminster’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, wrote in a report on UK renewable energy: “Conventional wisdom seems to be that shallow offshore wind (depth less than 25m–30m), while roughly twice as costly as land-based wind, is economically feasible, given modest subsidy; and deep offshore wind is at present not economically feasible.”

However, Professor McDonald said that the benefits of offshore expansion would more than outweigh the high cost.

“It is expensive, but what it does do is take you potentially to the sites of offshore wind, large-scale tidal and wave generators that would give us an unprecedented opportunity to capitalise on something between 30GW and 60GW of offshore energy,” he said.

“Calibrate that with current peak demand in the UK, around 65GW, and we’re ­talking about the bulk of that being available from offshore resources.”

A sub-sea grid that is geographically close to the main resources but also permits connections to Scotland and England, Ireland, Scandinavia and mainland Europe is an essential partner to such offshore developments,

he added.

Without the necessary infrastructure, projects like the Scottish Government’s flagship Saltire Award – a £10 million prize for advances in wave and tidal technology – will yield few immediate benefits.

And though firms such as BP and Cairn Energy are continuing to exploit new North Sea oil reserves, and are likely to remain in the area for another generation at least, dwindling offshore stocks coupled with ever-tougher emissions targets – at least 50% of electricity demand must be met through renewable resources by 2020 – mean that the country must look elsewhere for its future.

Scotland has so far ploughed more than £500m over the last six years into creating energy research pools at leading institutions, with each of Strathclyde, Edinburgh, St Andrews and Aberdeen University specialising in a different area.

But energy experts insist that a further push is necessary if the country’s full potential is to be realised.

“We’ve got the technology in spades through oil and gas, but we’re already getting late in making commitments to create the infrastructure, develop the technologies and move to the investment.

“We need to make Scotland the world leader that it can be,” said Professor McDonald.