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We have to overcome the chicken-egg dilemma to effectively deploy hydrogen in transport

The decarbonisation of our transportation systems is a major milestone of the path towards our net-zero future. Within the EU-28, transport is responsible for around 20 per cent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Despite some improvements in fuel consumption efficiency in recent years, these emissions are still rising, mainly due to increasing road freight traffic.

How to make European roads ‘fit-for-55‘?

In the meantime, the European Commission is relentlessly pushing forward decarbonisation goals with ambitious strategies and wide-ranging actions which affect transport and its future from multiple angles. More recharging infrastructure, technology-neutral carbon intensity reductions and boosting alternative fuels markets are the core pillars of the transport proposals presented in the fit-for-55 package. Realising the urgency of action, new legislative proposals are pointing towards the direction of innovative energy carriers such as hydrogen, which could play a key role in the European Green Deal and pave the way towards the decarbonisation of transportation.

“The revised Alternative Fuels Infrastructure Regulation (AFIR) presented in the framework of the fit-for-55 package brought two major steps forward,” Zoltán Mayer, Secretary and Member of the Board of the Hungarian Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association tells CEENERGYNEWS.


“First of all, the change of the legislative instrument, from a directive into a regulation. This means that the regulation will have binding legal force throughout every Member State from the moment it enters into force,” says Mr Mayer. The revised AFIR would also introduce binding targets for 2025 and 2030 for the deployment of hydrogen refuelling infrastructure along the TEN-T (Trans-European Transport Network) core and comprehensive network.

“The proposed regulation doesn’t express targets in absolute numbers, instead, it requires a hydrogen refuelling station for every 150 kilometres.”

Hungary plans 20 hydrogen refuelling stations by 2030

In line with the EU policy directions, Member States have already started to plan ahead and draw up strategies to speed up the transition to clean methods of traffic relying partly on hydrogen. Hungary for instance envisions that the hydrogen demand of the transportation sector will grow to 10,000 tons by 2030.

Regarding vehicle fleets, Hungary’s National Hydrogen Strategy focuses on heavy-duty vehicles, such as trucks, waste collections vehicles and city buses, which may appear on the road as early as the beginning of the 2020s. The goal is to reach 4,8 thousand Hydrogen Fuel Cell vehicles on the roads by 2030, From this point, the increase will become even more dynamic, thanks to, in particular, the increasing popularity of hydrogen in the heavy-duty sector.

As Mr Mayer explains, Hungary aims to promote the decarbonisation of heavy-duty traffic through the launching of the so-called Green Truck project and – partly as a subset of this project – through the establishment of refuelling infrastructure along corridors.

“Hungary envisions the deployment of 20 hydrogen refuelling stations by 2030 under its National Hydrogen Strategy which is in parity with the EU goals.”

Under the Green Truck programme, the planning of infrastructure development has already started.

The legitimacy of hydrogen in long haul transport

Hydrogen technology is a suitable option for achieving decarbonisation targets specifically for long-haul routes. Szabolcs Tóth, Chief Financial Officer of Waberer’s, a market-leading logistics company in Hungary, which owns one of the largest own asset truck fleets in Europe tells CEENERGYNEWS that their partners show great interest in emission reduction and after setting targets for their own operations now they would like to extend these to their whole supply chain including logistics.

“When these companies set these targets most of us thought that by this time alternative fuels will be widespread and we will see electric cars everywhere on the roads, thus these targets will be easy to deliver. If we look around, we see that this is far from reality,” says Mr Tóth.

As Mr Tóth explains, hydrogen can provide a viable alternative as it basically combines the advantages of LNG and electric cars; fuel cell trucks have a much longer range, require fewer stops on long routes, can be fueled much faster and have less risk of lost cargo capacity.

“We are convinced that hydrogen will be the fuel of the future for long haul freight transport,” underlines Mr Tóth, however currently it is still in the experimental phase.

Although the heavy-duty vehicle market could be ideal for fuel cell development and deployment, producers still haven’t tapped so much into its potential and the market still has to come a long way and provide vehicles at an affordable price.

“We believe that hydrogen could be the solution and it can power cars and trucks in 5-10 years, however, it requires an approach that resolves bottlenecks, cooperation along the whole value chain and a clear implementation schedule.”

The chicken-egg dilemma

So what is the main bottleneck of the deployment of hydrogen technology in transportation? Historically, on the verge of every technological breakthrough people ask the same question: which should be first the technology or the infrastructure? It’s the classic chicken-egg dilemma, which wasn’t so different 150 years ago when they were planning to build the railway infrastructure; what should we have first, the railway or the trains? Experts agree that this question is inherently faulty because it presumes that one should precede the other.

“At the same time if we approach this dilemma from a different angle and try to develop these two parallelly, in a coordinated manner we can minimise the risks and expenses that early movers must face,” says Mr Mayer.

As he explains in the beginning, it’s inevitable that the infrastructure will have a bit more capacity, but coordination between industry stakeholders is essential to take precautions. For instance, if a fleet operator would like to purchase hydrogen fuel cell trucks it would have to make sure that by that time, there will be appropriate charging infrastructure in its proximity. Vica versa, the quite expensive deployment of hydrogen refuelling infrastructure is only worth it if it will be used.

“The best way to ensure this is through an intersectoral memorandum of understanding which must be also joined by the stakeholder who supplies the hydrogen, the operator of the refuelling stations and last but not least the state, whose role is to create a favourable and market-friendly regulatory system,” says Mr Mayer adding that the cooperation should be harmonised not only in time but also in terms of location as strategically it’s important to place already the first refuelling stations in areas where they can operate with a high utilisation rate and to develop infrastructure where it makes sense.

Think global, start local

Mr Tóth also underlines the importance to surpass the chicken-egg dilemma and agrees that this problem can only be solved by coordinated action along the value chain involving the state and key industry stakeholders. As he reveals Waberer’s already has suggestions regarding the potential locations where this cooperation can kick-off.

“The proposal involves complex local pilot projects planned on three locations in Hungary (Győr, Budapest and Debrecen) building on already existing demand.”

Given the lack of infrastructure, the pilot projects must take place in areas where a single hydrogen filling station can supply an operation with significant volume and multiple users in order to achieve economies of scale, explains Mr Tóth.

The locations of the pilot projects were chosen accordingly. Győr gives place to the huge manufacturing plant of Audi, while BMW is building its newest unit in its European production network in Debrecen. The third location is the capital city of Budapest. As Mr Tóth underlines these areas provide various potential use of hydrogen; the plants use hydrogen for industrial purposes, but logistical operations, regional distribution, as well as local public transport, offer many opportunities to use hydrogen, while territory-wise these are small areas, which means that one filling station can supply a wide range of operations. Later these pilots can be linked and finally integrated into a national and international infrastructure.

“Of course, innovative new technologies are always more costly than traditional ones, therefore the active involvement and support of the state is a prerequisite to the take-up of hydrogen technology,” highlights Mr Tóth but as he points out some good examples demonstrate that it’s not impossible.

In Europe, Switzerland introduced similar mini-pilot projects which were then integrated into a national infrastructure. “It was a long preparatory work there as well, which requires ambition and the close cooperation of industry stakeholders,” concludes Mr Tóth.

As we see hydrogen can become the Holy Grail of the greening of the transport sector, especially in long-haul trucking, provided the hydrogen production pathway can be effectively decarbonised. The EU has already set the directions and Member States are ready to follow suit, setting ambitious targets. Combined with effective intersectoral cooperation, a favourable regulatory environment and timely, well-designed pilot projects the deployment of hydrogen can bring us one step closer to cutting the emissions coming from one of the most polluting sectors of our economies.

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