Gainesville, Fla., is poised to become the first U.S. city to adopt incentives similar to the ones that made the German solar market the largest – by far – in the world.

Gainesville Regional Utilities has drawn up a plan for a feed-in tariff, in which it would buy all the electricity that solar-power systems generate for a set rate guaranteed for 20 years from the time a project is installed.

The plan would pay 26 cents per kilowatt hour, according to Mike Antheil, acting director for the Florida Alliance for Renewable Energy.

While California already has a feed-in tariff, for instance, it only allows residents to offset their electricity bills – not to make money if they sell more power than they use.

"This is really a historic moment," Kellyn Eberhardt, an associate with the Environmental Defense Fund, told The Gainesville Sun. "This is the first time in North America that a municipally owned utility is considering a feed-in-tariff policy."

At the Solar Power International conference in San Diego on Tuesday, Roy Ratner, director of operations at Atlas Solar Innovations, also said it's an important step.

"This is very exciting," he said. "This could be the catalyst for big change. ... Policy has to come before everything."

According to the Sun, city commissioners on Monday asked the utility to draft an ordinance to try to get the tariff passed as early as Jan. 1.

The move means the tariff is very likely to pass, Antheil said.

"Once the commissions say to draft that up, it's pretty much a done deal," he said. "Business as usual, these are the formal steps we have to go through. But once the first step begins, it usually pretty much follows like dominoes and this is what we'd like to see here."

He said he has no doubt this will not only go through, but it will spark movement in the rest of Florida.

"Nobody wants to be left in the dust on something like this," he said. "This is going to spark an almost 'Don't be left behind' thing among the different cities and municipalities. I think this is a great move for Florida. It's a phenomenal start."

While he isn't certain about the Gainesville tariff, which seems to target solar power specifically, Antheil said his group hopes more renewable-energy sources will be included in future plans and in other areas. He also expects most tariffs will decrease over time to push costs toward competitiveness with traditional energy sources.

According to the Sun, the Gainesville feed-in tariff would end the current cash rebate of $1.50 per watt for solar-electric panels and also would eliminate a program that turns customers' meter backwards when they feed power into the grid.

The cost of the program would be distributed among customers as an increase in the utility's "fuel adjustment rate," which is determined by the amount the utility spends on coal and natural gas each month, The Gainsville Sun reported.

If the program results in the installation of 1 megawatt of solar equipment each year for the next 20 years, customers would see a rate increase of less than 1 percent per customer by 2029, according to the utility. 

Large incentives have the tendency to be more successful than expected (see Big Renewable-Energy Subsidies Backfire).

But Antheil said even in Germany, the largest solar market today, the tariff costs customers the equivalent of a load of bread – some $2 to $3 – per month.

"This is a spark that is going to create competition amongst the different municipalities and show Florida that right now, we have an opportunity to lead the rest of the country when it comes to job creation, energy independence and environmental stewardship," he said. "We have the chance to set the roadmap, to create the blueprint. I hope Gov. Crist and the rest of the municipalities take the opportunity to launch us onto the world stage in this area."