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On the heels of GM’s $20 billion IPO, GM company Chevrolet has stepped in with a pledge to spend $40 million on clean energy projects in the U.S.

The company is looking to offset carbon emissions — 8 million metric tons, to be exact, or about one year’s worth of electricity use in 971,000 U.S. homes (or, to put it another way, the year’s worth of emissions from the 1.9 million cars the automaker will sell in 2011). One of those cars is a little more emissions-friendly than the others, and that’s the Chevrolet Volt (pictured), which goes 25 to 50 miles on battery power before switching to gas.

The company will make investments through third-party groups like the non-profit Bonneville Environmental Foundation. It’s looking at investments like providing smart building sensors and solar panels to schools, supporting wind farms and solar projects, and converting methane from landfills into energy.

The move was lauded by Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, who said in a statement: “It is a big deal that (Chevrolet) is stepping forward to address one of our greatest challenges – moving us toward a low-carbon future.”

It’s certainly a big and perhaps unusual move for a company that makes gas-powered vehicles to invest in a big way in clean energy. Chevy joins some other big-name companies who’ve made big cleantech investments recently — that includes GE’s $55 million investment in the winners of its Ecomagination cleantech startups competition, and Google taking a 37.5 percent stake in the initial phase of what will eventually be a billion-dollar wind transmission project.

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