China has enforced a series of policy incentives and investments to expedite renewable energy production. However, in practice serious curtailments are being applied to renewable power generation. Using a water-energy-carbon nexus perspective, it is possible to see the diverse and multiple impact of these curtailments, beyond simply a loss in loss in productivity of renewable energy sources.

This study reviews relevant literature to examine the causes and consequences of renewable power curtailments in China, and the connections between water, energy, and carbon emissions in power generation.

Two types of experiments are then run: a complete-depletion experiment and a partial-depletion experiment, to assess the potential implications on carbon emissions and water resources if a range of incremental measures are applied to mitigate the curtailments of renewable power.

The experiments show that reductions in renewable energy curtailments would generate sizeable reductions in carbon emissions and water resource savings, given that renewable energy, particularly wind and solar power, would require far less water use than fossil-fueled thermal generation, and emit no carbon emissions.

Eliminating barriers to wind power would produce the most significant environmental benefits, followed by eliminating barriers to solar power and hydropower. The results of the analysis highlight the urgency and significance of addressing the renewable energy curtailment challenge China is currently experiencing, which in turn requires reconsideration of China’s power system transformation policy and its practices.