The ecological impact of energy production and consumption is often relegated in analytical accounts of the evolution of energy systems, where production and consumption patterns are analysed as the interaction of social, economic and technological factors. Ecological and social–ecological dynamics are, we argue, critical in the context of imperatives for access to modern energy services that are inadequate for significant sections of the world's population. The ecological impacts of energy use are often analysed as a set of externalities, many of which are uncertain or unquantifiable, particularly if they stem from earth system change such as anthropogenic climate change. Here we outline the benefits from analysing energy systems as social–ecological systems. We review the extensive literature from ecology and resilience theories, and compare the analytical domains, major findings and emphasis of social–ecological systems with socio-technical transition research. We illustrate these differences with the example of the multi-scale impacts of biofuel expansion. We show that social–ecological systems research combines analysis of interactions with ecological systems and power relations between actors in energy systems, and has the potential to do so across production, distribution and consumption domains whilst illustrating the dynamics of such energy systems, identifying potential trade-offs and regime shifts.