Bruce Nilles

  • Country: United States
  • Cohort: 2018
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Bruce Nilles finds solace and inspiration in the outdoors. He cherishes moments spent trail running, hiking, backpacking, mountaineering, snowboarding, and car camping with his children. This connection to nature fuels his passion for a greener, more sustainable world.

Bruce was selected for a Climate Breakthrough Award in 2018 because he was an outstanding, innovative strategist with a laser focus on mitigating climate change. The Award is designed to help leaders like Bruce who, in the face of long odds, have turned big visions into real-world impact. 

Breakthrough Idea

Eliminate the use of fossil fuels like natural gas, propane, and oil in powering millions of American homes and commercial buildings. The central idea is to align climate advocates, policymakers, funders, and corporations around a bold vision to transition these buildings away from fossil fuels and towards efficient electric systems powered by renewable energy sources. This would cut a large source of greenhouse gas emissions currently responsible for up to a billion tons of CO2-equivalent annually. By banning new construction from using fossil fuels, reforming utility regulations, highlighting health impacts, and driving market transformation, this initiative aims to make fossil fuel use in buildings “the next coal” in terms of a national priority to phase out.

As founder and lead strategist of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, Bruce led efforts that eventually secured the retirement of over half the US coal fleet. He was one of the global pioneers in the movement away from coal, although his goal to challenge the 150 new proposed coal-fired power plants in America in the early 2000s was initially seen as laughably ambitious. 

After receiving the Award, Bruce shifted his focus to a new challenge: eliminating natural gas and its negative impact on air quality from US buildings and homes. He launched the electrification program at the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) and soon thereafter provided key support to the City of Berkeley to be the first in the US to ban gas in new buildings.

“Building a new all-electric home powered by heat pumps is already cheaper than building with gas because you avoid the costs of gas lines and ventilation,” he said in a 2019 opinion piece in The New York Times.

The landmark ban in Berkeley inspired dozens of other cities in California to follow suit, demonstrating the power of Bruce’s vision in creating a domino effect of change.

The significant funding from the Climate Breakthrough Award was critical to being able to scale a campaign that has now helped inspire a movement that is now calling for an end to all fossil fuels in our buildings.

bruce nilles

post award

In 2021, Bruce was tapped to lead Climate Imperative, an initiative that seeks to provide funding, technical support, and expertise to inform the most important climate policy decisions in major emitting countries around the world.

While Bruce left RMI and his breakthrough strategy to pursue this new opportunity in climate action, the team at RMI has continued to carry forward the effort to eliminate gas in US buildings. As of 2022, the team reports that seven states and 66 cities have building electrification policies in place, and nine states have adopted a ban on gas in new buildings.


From 2007 to 2018, Bruce Nilles served as the Beyond Coal Senior Campaign Director for the Sierra Club, where he spearheaded an ambitious campaign to replace the United States’ 530 coal plants with clean energy alternatives. 

Before his role with the Sierra Club, Bruce was a staff attorney at Earthjustice and worked to improve air quality in California’s Central Valley through litigation and advocacy. His legal expertise led to settlements that enforced stronger clean air regulations. During his tenure in the US Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, he prosecuted landmark cases targeting landlords who neglected to protect children from lead paint hazards, resulting in the cleanup of over 10,000 high-risk housing units. 

He has a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Wisconsin, where he graduated in the top 10% of his class and served as the Editor-in-Chief of the Environmental Law Journal. His numerous accolades include being recognized by Politico as “one of the thinkers, doers, and visionaries transforming American politics” in 2015, as well as receiving Grist‘s Eco-Hero of the Year award in 2008 for his role in building a nationwide movement against coal.

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