While hydrogen fuel vehicles have several advantages, they face the same problems as electric cars with charging infrastructure, writes Jochelle Laguipo, a PhD student at the School of Mechanical & Manufacturing Engineering and a researcher with the MaREI Centre at DCU. 

With the global push towards sustainable transport solutions, two technologies stand out: battery electric vehicles and hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles. Both technologies offer significant benefit, mainly reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the transport sector. About 23% of global emissions are due to transport and the Irish transport sector was responsible for 19.1% of the country’s total emissions in 2022.

Given Ireland’s specific needs and capabilities, which of these technologies holds the key to a greener future? The answer to this may shape the country’s transportation policies, influence market dynamics, and set a precedent for other nations facing similar dilemmas.

The choices made will play pivotal role in shaping Ireland’s path forward, determining how effectively we meet our climate goals and ensuring the country’s sustainable future. 

Ireland has set an ambitious goal of a 51% reduction in emissions by 2030. To achieve this, it is imperative to address the emissions by the transport sector.

Commitment to global sustainability efforts

Tackling this area can significantly drive the country closer to its goals, ensuring both a cleaner transport sector and a commitment to global sustainability efforts. Given the sector’s notable impact on overall emissions, its transition to cleaner sources could serve as a foundation in Ireland’s overarching climate action strategy and promote a greener future.

When we talk about zero-emission transport solutions, we immediately think of electric cars. Battery electric vehicles have been popular in recent years, spurred by the government's commitment to having almost a million electric vehicles on the road by 2030. Various incentives were put in place to encourage uptake, such as grants, reduced toll fees, and taxes.

However, the rollout of charging infrastructure has been a predominant obstacle for the more gradual adoption of battery cars. As of 2021, approximately 1,300 public charging points operate across the country and their usage was free up until 2020. 

https://www.rte.ie/radio/radio1/clips/11435969/ From RTÉ News' Hot Mess podcast, is hydrogen a golden opportunity from Ireland to cut emissions?

While battery electric vehicles are a familiar sight, hydrogen vehicles remain somewhat of a novelty in Ireland. Hydrogen produced from renewable energy is a great tool to reduce carbon emissions.


Its versatility allows it to be used in a range of different applications, from producing fertilisers to powering mobility and transport. With the use of fuel cells, the hydrogen is combined with the oxygen in the air, thus producing electricity and water vapour – an ideal technology.

There are several potential advantages to hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles. They can cover longer distances, carry heavier loads compared to battery electric vehicles and refuel faster. This makes it suitable for reducing emissions of buses and trucks.

In fact, in 2021, three hydrogen buses were introduced into our public transport in Dublin. Internationally, hydrogen-powered carsbuses and even trains have been operational for a few years, though the hydrogen source may not be entirely green. 

This is where Ireland has a distinct advantage because our potential in hydrogen lies in its renewable energy sector. The country has been making strides in wind energy, and this could be harnessed for green hydrogen production.

By using wind energy to produce green hydrogen, Ireland could position itself at the forefront of clean hydrogen production in Europe. The government has recently released a National Hydrogen Strategy which can support production of green hydrogen. 

https://www.rte.ie/radio/radio1/clips/22293469/ From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Claire Byrne, Dr Paul Deane on the National Hydrogen Strategy

But the same challenge persists as with battery electric cars: infrastructure. Producing, storing, and transporting hydrogen efficiently remains a challenge.

Unlike battery electric vehicles where you can potentially charge at home using existing electrical grid, hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles requires creation of a hydrogen refuelling ecosystem, which requires capital and time.

Both technologies have their respective advantages and challenges. For shorter trips and inner-city commuting, battery EVs have the edge due to a more established infrastructure and focus on expanding the charging network.

Not in competition with each other

For longer trips, the transport of heavy goods or where quicker refuelling is essential hydrogen electric vehicles might hold the advantage. Nonetheless, these two technologies should not be viewed as being in competition with each other. Both can play crucial roles in reducing emissions in transport.

From a consumer’s perspective, new green technologies like electric or hydrogen-powered vehicles brings both enthusiasm and caution. The appeal of sustainable travel is evident but concerns often arise not with the technology itself, but rather the upfront costs and the accessibility of the infrastructure.

For a smooth transition, it is crucial that we actively address these infrastructural challenges, offering robust support and incentives to reassure and facilitate consumers’ shift. 

An approach which combines both might be the key: we can invest in the improvement of battery electric car infrastructure while concurrently researching and piloting hydrogen initiatives.

The focus should not revolve around an exclusive choice between alternatives, but rather on establishing the appropriate infrastructure to facilitate multiple options. Fundamental infrastructure must be addressed first whether considering electric or hydrogen technologies.

In the end, the primary objective is to have a sustainable transport system to achieve Ireland’s climate goals. Ireland has an opportunity to make radical transformations and the choices made today will pave the way for a sustainable tomorrow. 

Author: , DCU. This article first appeared in RTÉ's Brainstorm.