By far the most ambitious plan to build and assemble electric cars in the U.S. comes not from General Motors or Ford, but from Nissan.

Now, it may happen a little later than expected, due to the March 11 earthquake and resulting tsunami that severely damaged large portions of Japan's industrial infrastructure.

Parts shortages may delay Nissan's plan to manufacture 150,000 Nissan Leaf electric cars and 200,000 lithium-ion battery packs for electric vehicles in Tennessee, according to trade journal Automotive News.

Hideaki Watanabe, head of Nissan’s Global Zero Emission Vehicle Business Unit, said last week there "may be" some "potential for delay" but that the company hadn't yet given up its hopes of starting battery production in the U.S. in September next year. Car assembly would follow in December.

Leaf production at the company's Oppama plant in Japan--right now, the only place the Nissan Leaf is built--is not yet back to pre-earthquake levels, he said. It is "a very difficult situation," Watanabe said.

Nissan lithium-ion battery pack plant under construction, Smyrna, Tennessee, Jan 2011

Nissan lithium-ion battery pack plant under construction, Smyrna, Tennessee, Jan 2011

Katherine Zachary, of Nissan USA, provided the following statement: "Nissan continues to target an end-of-2012 start of production for the Nissan LEAF, and the lithium-ion batteries that power it, in Tennessee."

The statement continued: "The earthquake in Japan has impacted our operations worldwide and because of this we still are assessing whether it will impact the start of production for the LEAF at Smyrna."

In other words, we'll let you know.

The company broke ground on the battery plant in Smyrna, Tennessee, last June, and issued photos of the ongoing construction in January.

It plans to build the Leaf on the same line as its Altima and Maxima gasoline-powered sedans, with the three models intermingled as demand dictates.

The two projects are partly funded by $1.4 billion of low-interest loans granted in 2009 by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Meanwhile, Nissan Leaf sales are trending upwards, with the Leaf doubling its April sales to sell a record 1,142 units in May.

Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn told reporters last week that the company expected to sell 1,500 Leafs in the U.S. during June.

[Automotive News (requires subscription), Bloomberg via SFgate]


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