Nissan Breaks Ground on Their U.S. Electric Car Battery Plant

The hot, sweltering Tennessee sun baked us under a big white-top tent this morning as Nissan dedicated the future site of their $1.7 billion dollar, state-of-the art Nissan LEAF battery plant in Smyrna. Encompassing 1.3 million square feet (22 American football fields), when the plant comes online in late 2012 it will be one of the largest battery facilities in North America.

Tennesee’s Governor, Phil Bredesen, was on hand along with Daniel Poneman, the Deputy Secretary of the US Department of Energy and Carlos Ghosn, Nissan’s CEO and President.

The plant will deliver batteries to Nissan LEAFs that are set to be assembled in the existing Smyrna vehicle assembly plant right next door. As the battery plant is constructed over the next year and a half, the vehicle assembly facility will be retooled to be able to add LEAFs into the production line alongside Altimas, Fronteras, X-Terras and Pathfinders. When all’s said and done, the battery and LEAF production will create an additional 1,300 jobs. Nissan expects that the full capacity of the co-located plants will be about 200,000 batteries and 150,000 LEAFs each and every year.

Until the Smyrna facilities come online, there will only be one plant in Japan supplying Nissan LEAFs to the world with a production capacity of 50,000 vehicles annually. That will all change in 2012, when the Japanese facility is joined by Smyrna and other plants around the world, including a couple in Europe. At that point the production capacity for LEAFs and other Renault-Nissan EVs will jump from 50,000 to 500,000 per year.

During a tour of the Smyrna vehicle assembly plant, we were told that Nissan will be able to maintain current production levels of all the vehicles they assemble there (the plant has actually been in continuous operation since 1981) and that the 150,000 LEAF capacity will be in addition to those.

In order to accommodate the special needs of assembling an electric vehicle, Nissan is using some serious creativity to make the inclusion of the LEAF alongside conventional vehicle assembly a virtually seamless endeavor. For instance, at the station where the fuel tank is normally brought in underneath a suspended vehicle, the LEAF will have its battery pack added. And at the station where the engine is brought in to the vehicle, the electric motor will be added. Other than that, the assembly of an electric vehicle is much simpler than a conventional one.

“Nissan is committed to affordable, sustainable mobility. What we’re doing here will radically transform the automotive experience for consumers. Today is a major step in helping create a green economy in the United States,” said Carlos Ghosn, president and CEO of Nissan. “Production of Nissan LEAF and lithium-ion batteries in Smyrna brings the United States closer to its goal of energy independence, creates green jobs and helps sustain American manufacturing. Nissan is a leader in global manufacturing innovation, and this state-of-the-art battery plant will strengthen that leadership.”

The battery assembly plant was spurred by a $1.4 billion, low-interest loan from the US Department of Energy as part of the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program.

Disclaimer: The author’s travel expenses and lodging were paid for by Nissan for this event.

Nick Chambers

Not your traditional car guy.