Thermal generation - coal, gas and nuclear - today represents the backbone of the European power system. Challenges to thermal generation include climate change, supply security and volatile fossil fuel prices. Thermal generators also have specific features that are becoming more important as the share of variable (i.e. not constantly available) renewables grows.
Most importantly, thermal generators are dispatchable: they can be regulated to match shifts in demand or supply, can be turned on and off based on their economic attractiveness and can provide many technical services ('ancillary services') that help keep the system stable and in balance.
Beside their traditional role as baseload generators, providing electricity around the clock, thermal generators have seen their role evolve amidst the massive increase of renewables: they provide the necessary flexible and back-up capacity that makes up for sudden falls in renewable generation; and they can easily reduce their output whenever variable renewables such as wind and solar make up a big chunk of the market. In doing so, they allow society to make the most of renewable energy whenever it's available.
Decarbonisation is another buzzword surrounding thermal generation. Nuclear generation is a carbon-neutral, safe and reliable technology and will play a crucial role for Europe's decarbonisation pathway. Fossil-fired generation can also contribute to reducing our industry's carbon footprint in a number of ways: by substituting older coal and gas plants with more efficient ones that emit less CO2 and use less fuel; by switching from coal to gas where suitable; by co-combusting coal and biomass; and by applying breakthrough carbon capture and storage technology once it becomes commercially available.