updated 9/7/2010 3:15:38 PM ET 2010-09-07T19:15:38

A team of Swiss researchers has released conclusive data showing that the environmental impact of an electric vehicle is much less than previously thought.

As any EV advocate will tell you that electric vehicles are extremely green when fueled from renewable energy such as solar or wind power. And even those fueled from non-clean power sources, such as gas, oil and coal are less polluting than gasoline cars.

But EVs have a sinful side that cannot be ignored. Batteries.

Some of the most vocal anti-EV spokespersons say that mining the minerals and metals used in electric car batteries is much more damaging to the planet than drilling for the oil that fuels gasoline cars.

Thankfully, it turns out they are wrong. According to a study from the Swiss-based EMPA institute, which focuses on material sciences and technology development, li-ion batteries for electric vehicles are greener than expected.

The team, lead by Dominic Notter, calculated the ecological footprints of electric cars fitted with li-ion batteries, taking into account many factors all the way from its production through its operation to its disposal, and then compared that information with that of gasoline cars. Overall, EVs use fewer natural resources.

For example, when they compared electric cars similar in size and performance to the 2010 VW Golf, the researchers discovered that only 15 percent of the total environmental impact of building the car could be attributed to the battery pack. Of that, only 2.3 percent came from mining and processing raw lithium.

Other materials used in lithium-ion batteries such as copper and aluminum, attributed 7.5 percent of the environmental burden.

But don’t think for one second that the researchers were giving EV batteries an easy time.

The researchers note that batteries have to be recharged, and if the electricity is sourced nuclear, coal-fired and hydroelectric power stations -- a standard electricity generation mix in Europe -- a battery used for 100,000 miles produces three times as much pollution as that from manufacturing.

Using power exclusively from coal-fired stations worsens the impact of an EV by more than 13 percent.

But if the electricity comes from a renewable energy source such as hydroelectric, the number improves by no less than 40 percent.

The takeaway message being that sources of electricity need to be renewable.

The researchers concluded that to be more environmentally friendly than an EV a gasoline car would need to have a fuel efficiency of more than 59 miles per U.S. gallon.

The message from Switzerland is clear. Even when fueled by dirty sources, EVs with lithium-ion batteries have less environmental impact than their gasoline-powered counterparts.

Charge from a renewable source, and gasoline cars simply cannot compete.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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