ANTONY AKILADE meets the Director of Innovation at Star Refrigeration.

Dave Pearson, director of innovation at Glasgow-based heating and cooling specialists Star Refrigeration is readying his travel bag for a business trip to Drammen in Norway where he will host a fact-finding mission for consultants, property managers and heating specialists interested in a unique district heating system.

Designed and built by Star Refrigeration, the system uses large heat pumps. A heat pump differs from conventional heating technologies by moving heat rather than generating heat by burning fossil fuels. It's the same technology that a household freezer uses.

"Our major challenge is certainly awareness. Our technology needs a source of heat. That could be a river, a flooded mine shaft or in the case of Drammen, seawater. We need a heat demand: for us that's medium to large-sized buildings or district heating systems. And you need the right equipment. But the last challenge is customer vision. At the moment our potential clients are not aware what can be achieved with heat pumps so they are asking design teams to come up with better ways of burning gas or wood chip," says Pearson.

Star Refrigeration were originally invited to bid for the Drammen project back in 2009. Now fully up and running the system delivers 14,000 kW of heat every hour to the district heating system, which is enough to heat 6000 homes.

"This is exactly the technology that is supported by the government's renewable heat incentive (RHI). It encourages people to use low grade waste heat which is then boosted up to a higher temperature. This is a very carbon efficient way of heating. It also happens to be quite cost-effective but with fairly substantial equipment costs, however these are subsidised by the RHI," says Pearson.

Low-grade heat can come from rivers, underground aquifers, or other large water bodies. These are all classed as renewable heat sources and qualify for subsidies under the government's RHI. Star Refrigeration's technology is able to take water as cold as 2C and boost its temperature to as much 90C.

"We've proven in Norway that we can use large heat pumps to keep our homes warm. We now need to persuade our UK market that it can be done here, it can be done anywhere there is a source of low-grade heat," Pearson says.

"There are other sources of low-grade heat which aren't recognised as renewable, such as the waste heat from a distillery. The waste heat from one of these, and many of them are in cities, could be of the order of 20MW, which is enough to heat a huge portion of a city. 20MW is a larger heat requirement than the proposed north Glasgow district heating scheme will ever need."

Star Refrigeration has received help from both Scottish Enterprise and Scottish Development International in building its business.

"We've been working with Scottish Enterprise for a while," says Pearson. "The technique in Norway could also be modified for use in the Middle East, and SDI has supported visits there. They have also set up a meeting with a delegation from the Caribbean and an American development bank.

"We are offering district cooling using large heat pumps but with the warm end of the heat pump we have waste heat at 90C. We've developed a system that can take this and use it to boil seawater and create drinking water," says Pearson.

Delivering combined district cooling and desalination systems for countries in any warm country in the world is the second phase of Star Refrigeration's market development.

"SE and SDI basically help us to join the dots and they have helped with a couple of strategy sessions. These help us focus and by taking us through the full strategy to visualise the process we can identify potential problems. The thing about innovation is you can take it in 100 different directions but we try to be disciplined and concentrate on the best options. We've also been helped recently to set up a new brand, Star Renewable Energy, to really concentrate our efforts on renewable energy opportunities."

For Pearson one of the key attractions of his low-carbon heat technology is a much greater return on investment than fossil fuel based alternatives. However he recognises that cracking the domestic market will take patience.

"There is an awful lot of options which are credible, biomass, CHP but at the end of the day burning fossil fuels is only going to achieve at a maximum 90% efficiency. If you are extracting energy from low-grade sources of heat using heat pumps you can be 300% or 400% efficient. It's got great potential but it takes time to waken people up.

"We don't have the problem of asking people to go green and make a financial compromise. We're able to say go green and be more profitable. That's a nice proposition to be putting in front of customers and the market is slowly warming to that," Pearson says.