Researching renewable energy in Jakarta and Los Angeles
Sean Kennedy visited Indonesia four times between 2013 and 2017 to research renewable energy transition. (Photo: Kevin Sprague/ UCLA.)

Researching renewable energy in Jakarta and Los Angeles

Sean Kennedy (UCLA 2018 Ph.D.) credits his success to support he received from both the Center for Southeast Asian Studies and the Asia Pacific Center, including four FLAS grants to study Indonesian.

By Kevin Sprague (UCLA 2018)

UCLA International Institute, June 07, 2018 — UCLA is a multilingual campus: beyond the dozens of languages spoken by students living in residence halls and strolling down Bruin Walk, more than 40 languages are taught on campus and 400 are represented in the library collection. With so many languages, there are many opportunities for students whose linguistic interests extend beyond more traditional choices such as French, Italian or Spanish.

One such student was Sean Kennedy, who turned to the Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowship Program after finishing his master’s degree and deciding to formally study Indonesian in 2014. Four years, four visits to Indonesia and four academic-year Indonesian FLAS grants later, Kennedy is graduating with a Ph.D. in urban planning and working with the California Center for Sustainable Communities at UCLA.


Solar power array in Jeda Villa, Pemuteran, Bali. (Photo: Selamat Made via Flickr, 2010; cropped). CC BY 2.0

FLAS grants facilitate the study of Indonesian

The U.S. Department of Education’s FLAS Fellowship Program, which works through university departments and centers that are awarded grants in a competitive application process, provides financial support for university students interested in the study of less commonly taught foreign languages. Academic-year and intensive summer fellowships offer both undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to learn underrepresented languages at the intermediate and advanced level while also taking area studies courses.

"I initially went to Indonesia for three months as part of an internship for my master’s program at UCLA and began to seriously consider studying Indonesian,” said Kennedy, who originally hails from Australia and received his M.A. in urban and regional planning in 2014.

Kennedy was introduced to the FLAS program by a friend in the geography department who had worked abroad in China and received a year-long FLAS grant to study Chinese. “When my friend recommended the grant to me as I entered my Ph.D. program here at UCLA, my interests and the FLAS grant seemed to align perfectly,” he explained.

Following his friend’s recommendation, Kennedy applied to the program through the Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS), which awards grants for the study of Indonesian and Indonesian studies. 

“One of the most interesting things about [FLAS] is that the recipients aren’t all studying the same thing,” continued Kennedy. In his Indonesian language classes, he was surrounded by geography majors, architecture and urban planning students and ethnomusicologists. “A common interest in Indonesia has allowed me to meet lots of people I wouldn't usually come into contact with and apply their knowledge to my own work and research,” he said.

“To students interested in the FLAS grant, particularly for Indonesia: go for it!” Kennedy urged. He highly recommended the program to anyone hoping to gain foreign language skills while also developing a knowledge of the history, politics and culture of another part of the world. “The classes you’ll take as a FLAS student can inform your research in ways you would never have considered if you had only focused on grammar or one particular discipline,” he remarked.

“The skills I learned in the program allowed me to converse with locals while conducting research — even in extreme situations — which enabled me to be much more understanding and engaged than I would have been without any language connection,” he explained.

Conducting research from Jakarta to Sumatra

Solar pump used to irrigate vegetable farms in Lewa, Sumba Island, Indonesia. (Photo: <a href="https://bit.ly/2xOQnP2">Asian Development Bank via Flickr</a>, 2014; cropped). <a href="https://goo.gl/vBgtNb">CC BY-NC-ND 2.0</a> In addition to FLAS grants from CSEAS, Kennedy also received a Hiroshi Wagatsuma Memorial Fellowship and a Graduate Fellowship from the Asia Institute (now the Asia Pacific Center) to support his doctoral research.

“These fellowships supported my preliminary research visit to Indonesia in 2014,” Kennedy said. That visit took him to a number of communities across Sumatra. “While I had initially intended to research the implications of market-based environmental conservation initiatives, initial interviews alerted me to issues around energy, which ultimately reshaped the focus and direction of my research,” he explained.

“I've been fortunate to visit parts of Indonesia at opposite ends — from Northern Sumatra to Papua and many places in between,” said Kennedy, who observed energy disparities between regions. And he was able to put his knowledge of Indonesian to the test in every new location. “Whenever I rode on the back of an ojek [motorbike taxi], I was able to converse casually with the driver about [energy access] in his community,” he shared.

The young scholar has now been to Indonesia four times: He initially visited in 2013 to work for the World Agroforestry Centre in the city of Bogor, approximately 40 miles south of Jakarta. During that time, he also conducted fieldwork in Bungo, located in Jambi Province on the island of Sumatra.

In August 2014, he returned to Bungo for two weeks to conduct preliminary fieldwork for his Ph.D. He visited Indonesia a third time in September of 2016 to attend the World Renewable Energy Congress in Jakarta and visit one of Indonesia's largest geothermal projects in Darajat, located near the city of Bandung.

During Kennedy’s most recent research trip in 2017, he attended the Solar Capital Asia conference in Singapore, conducted a series of government and NGO interviews in Jakarta and made field visits to Indonesia's largest solar PV project in Kupang (on the island of East Nusa Tenggara) and a community solar project in Sentani (in the province of Papua).

“Traveling between different islands exposed me to vastly different foods, styles of dress and music,” said Kennedy. He especially enjoyed Indonesian food, of which he was able to sample a wide variety during his travels. “As an archipelago nation that has experienced multiple waves of migration, Indonesia is incredibly diverse,” he said.

“At the risk of over-generalizing, people in Indonesia seem willing to laugh off life's challenges,” Kennedy added. “As travel in Indonesia can be challenging, I found trying to adopt this mindset incredibly useful to maintain a sense of sanity in the face of adversity,” he said, emphasizing that the variety of individuals he interacted with during each of his four visits were overwhelmingly friendly and helpful.

One of the first Indonesian phrases Kennedy learned when initially visiting the country in 2013 was jam karet, or “rubber time.” This oft-referenced concept proved very relevant to his research. “Awareness of the concept of jam karet taught me to expect that things would not run on time and thus not to cram successive interviews or meetings into short periods of time,” he explained.

Shared conditions inform renewable energy

Kennedy’s dissertation focused on the geography of transitions to renewable energy in Indonesia, but much of what he’s researched is also applicable to energy transitions in Los Angeles. He now integrates his international experience into his work at the California Center for Sustainable Communities (CCSC) at UCLA.

“CCSC is driven by concerns around urban sustainability,” said Kennedy. “We seek to understand how energy is being consumed in different areas and by whom, consider what different variables may affect energy consumption or water consumption and make informed decisions on effective policy,” he explained.

Kennedy’s work for the center, much like his dissertation, is focused on understanding the best means of inclusive, effective transitions to renewable energy. “A lot of that is trying to understand, from a technical point of view, where we should be putting renewable energy sources and whether they’ll integrate into the grid. There are similar benefits and costs to the transition to renewable energy, be it in LA or Jakarta,” he said.

Unequal access to modernized energy grids is a concern in both locations. “A lot of the issues related to inequality that I’ve examined in Indonesia are applicable to Los Angeles,” said Kennedy. “Like Indonesia, Southern California is a… region with big gaps in income levels,” he explained.


Solar powered streetlamp, Tebet Barat, Jakarta. (Photo: Ikhlasul Amal via Flickr, 2012; cropped.)
CC BY-NC 2.0. 

Although the geography of Southern California differs greatly from that of Indonesia, he predicted that both regions will likely turn to the same renewable energy production methods as a means of fighting inequality in the future. “The electricity sector in both countries is increasingly moving away from centralized energy generation towards small-scale operations which can be distributed across different types of places,” Kennedy said.

He explained that small-scale solar generation could be particularly effective in Indonesia, where 10 percent of the population — approximately 25 million people — don’t have access to reliable electricity and aren’t reaping any benefits from modernization of the country’s existing electrical grid.

“Recently, there’s been a lot of development in the field of solar energy in Indonesia, but a lot of that [development] has been from foreign investment in really, really large facilities in parts of the country that already have access to reliable, relatively cheap electricity,” said Kennedy. He is hoping that his work with CCSC might lead to more inclusive energy transitions that expand access to electricity for marginalized and/or remote communities in both California and Indonesia.

Several centers at the UCLA International Institute currently offer academic-year length and intensive summer FLAS Fellowships. The languages covered by these competitive fellowships include Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Quechua, Nahuatl, Portuguese, Advanced Spanish, Indonesian, Filipino/Tagalog, Khmer, Thai and Vietnamese. 

In addition to FLAS Fellowships, the Asia Pacific Center also offers Hiroshi Wagatsuma Memorial Fellowships promoting cross-cultural study concerning Japan or other Asian countries and North America. That Center also currently offers graduate research fellowships for pre-dissertation or dissertation-level research in Taiwan.


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