LONDON – Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. has broken ground for its U.K. lithium-ion battery plant at its manufacturing site in Sunderland, in northern England.

Backed with a hefty €220 million ($287 million) loan from the European Investment Bank, the auto maker not only lays the foundation for its first European plant to make EV batteries, but it also will build the new Leaf small plug-in electric car at Sunderland using existing assembly lines.

Leaf production begins in Japan later this year, followed by Nissan’s U.S. Smyrna, TN, facility in 2012. The Sunderland plant will start making the Leaf in 2013, where initial production is expected to be about 50,000 units annually.

“Thanks to the U.K.’s firm commitment to a low-carbon future in terms of (government-funded) infrastructure, customer incentives and educational programs, Nissan’s Leaf will be built at Sunderland, making the U.K. the third country in the world to produce this revolutionary car,” says Andy Palmer, Nissan senior vice president responsible for global EV strategy.

The 82,025 sq.-ft. (25,000-sq.-m) Li-ion battery plant is being built at the existing Sunderland complex, with production capacity of 60,000 units annually. The factory is expected to create 200 new jobs and add 600 more workers across the U.K. supply chain.

Nissan expects to start manufacturing Li-ion batteries in 2012 for both its own electrics and those of French-partner Renault SA.

The two auto makers, along with electric-utility EDF of France and other partners, have formed an alliance to promote electric vehicles and, crucially, a standardized infrastructure for battery charging and exchange.

Part of the Nissan loan from the EIB for the Sunderland venture calls for a portion of the funding to go towards standardizing the technology for batteries and EVs across Europe.

“We’re working actively with other auto makers to define a common standard,” a Nissan spokeswoman tells Ward’s. “Standardization is key for EVs to take off. We don’t want a situation like cell phones, where you have to have lots of different chargers.

“The loan was granted on the basis that we secure further inward investment into the U.K.”

The Renault-Nissan Alliance already is driving standards with the launch last month of a “road map for electric cars” in the town of Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire, England. Linking with the Milton Keynes Council, the auto maker will produce a network of 430 EV charging posts and EV sales outlets.

If all goes well, the Sunderland and Milton Keynes projects will address the auto industry’s key concerns. Daimler AG Chairman Dieter Zetsche, who also serves as president of the European manufacturers’ association, the ACEA, recently told a European Union council of ministers on competitiveness that global standards for EVs are crucial.

“When it comes to electric mobility, we need global standards with common interfaces between EVs and the infrastructure to recharge or refuel them,” he said. “Europe needs to move fast toward standardization – if we don’t set the standards, someone else will.”

The U.K.’s Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders sees EVs and their batteries as a collaborative venture, with auto makers requiring an established and standardized charging network in place to build public confidence as consumers switch from fossil fuels.

U.S. and Japanese vehicle and battery manufacturers have a 2-year start working on common technical standards for Li-ion batteries, which is why the EIB is eager to help Renault-Nissan to catch up with the international competition.