When Ronald Reagan referred to America as a “shining city upon the hill,” he didn’t mean it literally.
But the city of Pendleton has become uncomfortably shiny at times in the past year as commuters traveling eastbound on Interstate 84 are greeted by morning glare as they descend down the hill into town during the summer months.
The blinding light is caused by a 58-acre solar farm on the southwest side of Airport Hill, a development completed in 2018.
The glare drew enough complaints that the company that owns the solar farm and the Oregon Department of Transportation quietly installed a sign in early February that warns motorists about the impending glare.
While the move was done with little fanfare, it was preceded by years of behind-the-scenes wrangling between the city, ODOT, and the two companies that own the solar farm.
Pieced together through a public records request that revealed some of the correspondence between all three parties, the story behind the sign includes foreshadowing, a media-friendly complaint, and an elusive glare study.
The solar farm leases land from the city, and as the project was getting off the ground in August 2015, Pendleton Airport Manager Steve Chrisman reached out to ODOT to check on its glare requirements.
“The developer knows they must conduct a glare study for the (Federal Aviation Administration), but they asked if there were any other glare studies that need to be conducted,” he wrote to an ODOT assistant district director. “They specifically asked about ODOT and I-84. Can you pass this along to anyone that could help me answer that question.”
After some back-and-forth between ODOT, Chrisman, and a representative from the solar farm’s owner, Cypress Creek Renewables, he got his answer a month later.
ODOT permit specialist Thomas Lapp wrote that the department didn’t have any solar study requirements, but that didn’t mean it wanted glare to become an issue.
“We don’t want any light directed to the highway due to onsite lighting though,” he wrote. “So with this in mind we won’t ask for any glare study for approval.”
A week-and-a-half later, the Pendleton Planning Commission unanimously approved the solar farm without deliberation, according to meeting minutes.
Community Development Director Tim Simons said the commission could have made glare mitigation a condition of approval, but it wasn’t seen as an issue at the time.
“The FFA (sic) has submitted a letter that declares no issues with regards to glare,” the meeting minutes state. “ODOT has also stated no issues with glare.”
ODOT wouldn’t get another email about the issue until 2018.
As complaints started cropping up about the glare reflecting off the solar panels, a Cypress Creek spokesman vowed that the company was taking the issue seriously.
“We are currently working with a third party consulting partner to further analyze the project’s reflective light and take the appropriate mitigation measures if necessary,” Public Relations Director Jeff McKay told the East Oregonian in July 2018. “Cypress Creek is 100 percent committed to ensuring we follow any and all safety measures on our projects. It’s our top priority.”
Later that month, correspondence between the city and ODOT resumed as Pendleton Public Works Director Bob Patterson relayed complaints he was getting from the public.
“From my discussion with a few of the callers, the glare is really bad right now at about 7:45 am coming into Pendleton from the solar array,” he wrote. Also, from my last caller, the glare is coming off the panels, not just the structural support metal.”
ODOT District 12 Manager Marilyn Holt thanked Patterson and said the department had been fielding complaints too.
As Holt started trading emails with Cypress Creek, the city and ODOT were pulled back into the fray when a truck driver emailed in a complaint about the glare while looping in Patterson and a Portland-area television station.
As ODOT tried to collect more information from the city, Patterson suggested to Holt that the department install a sign by the highway.
“I still recommend consideration of a simple warning sign at the top of Rieth Ridge conveying “Solar Array Ahead – Summer Seasonal Glare – Keep Eyes on Road” or something like that if ODOT believes the glare is too much of an issue,” he wrote.
Holt seemed skeptical of the study while also reiterating her interest in Cypress Creek’s third party study.
Inquiring about the study would become an issue all its own.
An elusive study
Amy Berg Pickett, a regional zoning and outreach manager for Cypress Creek, emailed Holt on July 19, 2018, to tell her about the glare study the company was commissioning.
“Please Note Cypress Creek Renewables has hired a 3rd party reflective light expert consulting firm to study the potential for reflective light as it relates to the Pendleton Solar farm,” she wrote. “The consultant has a sophisticated tool that quantifies levels based on a number of key inputs (slope, terrain, type of PV panels, angle). The firm has also conducted independent research on reflective light and will help put context to the levels occurring.”
By mid-September, Holt was inquiring with Patterson whether the city had the study, but he redirected her to Cypress Creek.
As she tried to arrange an in-person meeting with Holt, Pickett wrote that the study was still being conducted.
Holt then reminded Pickett that Cypress Creek was supposed to have delivered the glare study in August.
In an interview, Holt said she eventually ended up viewing the study. But ODOT reported that it could not locate the glare study in its files, and as a result, didn’t produce it as a part of the records request.
Patterson said in an interview that he hasn’t seen a glare study for the solar farm, but added that Chrisman, the airport manager, might know.
Reached by phone on Thursday, Chrisman said he was on the East Coast but could field questions on Friday. He did not return a message left on his phone on Friday.
Pickett referred multiple inquiries to Paul Whitacre, an asset manager for the solar farm’s new owner: New Energy Solar.
A new sign
The exchange between ODOT and the solar farm’s owners culminated in the fall of 2018 with a letter from Craig Sipp, the ODOT manager for Eastern Oregon.
Sipp wrote that ODOT was concerned that the glare would cause a traffic accident and reiterated the department’s desire to review the glare study.
If the city or the owners didn’t address the issue, ODOT would hold them responsible.
“In the event there is an accident due to the solar glare and a claim or law suit is filed against ODOT, we will look to the City and Norwest Energy 9, LLC (the subsidiary that operates the solar farm) to defend and indemnify the state against any and all liability,” Sipp wrote.
Sipp also suggested the owners take a look at installing a sign. After responding to Sipp and ODOT, New Energy Solar seemed responsive to the idea.
As both sides began organizing plans for the sign, the tone from ODOT became more conciliatory.
“ODOT would also like to thank you for your understanding of the effect that the solar panels are having with glare along I-84 in Pendleton, and for your effort to help make the traveling public more aware of potential glare issues with the placement of warning signs at this location,” Paul Howland, an ODOT manager, wrote to Whitacre in December.
Howland emailed Whitacre in February to announce a sign reading “CAUTION Possible Solar Glare” was installed. An invoice states that ODOT charged New Energy $6,260 for the sign.
In a March email to the East Oregonian, Whitacre wrote that New Energy became aware of the issue when it purchased the solar farm and reviewed Cypress Creek’s study in addition to commissioning a study of its own.
“Our study noted that similar visual impairments occur for highway drivers from building, water, or highway reflections and to more extreme levels from direct sun and oncoming headlights,” he wrote. “Following consultation with ODOT in December 2018, it was determined that a sign advising of the potential for glare would enable drivers to better understand the landscape and driving conditions. Similar signage advising of temporal environmental hazards, high winds, and blowing dust that may impact vision is already present in the area.”
The East Oregonian reached out for additional comment on Thursday, but Whitacre said no one from the New York-based company was available for comment by deadline.
In an interview, Holt admitted that she was initially skeptical about the effectiveness of a sign, but she came around when she reviewed the studies that concluded that the glare didn’t pose a hazard to traffic.
Holt said ODOT doesn’t have any glare mitigation requirements for roadside solar farms, but they are becoming more prevalent across the state.
She added that ODOT would follow the lead of the federal government for solar glare traffic regulations.
Patterson said he was glad ODOT and New Energy Solar eventually followed his recommendation.
Both the city and ODOT will be waiting to see whether the complaints will spike again as the sun starts to align with the solar panels this summer.