Correlations between the amount of energy received by an assemblage and the number of species that it contains are very general, and at the macro-scale such species–energy relationships typically follow a monotonically increasing curve. Whilst the ecological literature contains frequent reports of such relationships, debate on their causal mechanisms is limited and typically focuses on the role of energy availability in controlling the number of individuals in an assemblage. Assemblages from high-energy areas may contain more individuals enabling species to maintain larger, more viable populations, whose lower extinction risk elevates species richness. Other mechanisms have, however, also been suggested. Here we identify and clarify nine principal mechanisms that may generate positive species–energy relationships at the macro-scale. We critically assess their assumptions and applicability over a range of spatial scales, derive predictions for each and assess the evidence that supports or refutes them. Our synthesis demonstrates that all mechanisms share at least one of their predictions with an alternative mechanism. Some previous studies of species–energy relationships appear not to have recognised the extent of shared predictions, and this may detract from their contribution to the debate on causal mechanisms. The combination of predictions and assumptions made by each mechanism is, however, unique, suggesting that, in principle, conclusive tests are possible. Sufficient testing of all mechanisms has yet to be conducted, and no single mechanism currently has unequivocal support. Each may contribute to species–energy relationships in some circumstances, but some mechanisms are unlikely to act simultaneously. Moreover, a limited number appear particularly likely to contribute frequently to species–energy relationships at the macro-scale. The increased population size, niche position and diversification rate mechanisms are particularly noteworthy in this context.