Microalgae represent one of the most promising groups of candidate organisms for replacing fossil fuels with contemporary primary production as a renewable source of energy. Algae can produce many times more biomass per unit area than terrestrial crop plants, easing the competing demands for land with food crops and native ecosystems. However, several aspects of algal biology present unique challenges to the industrial-scale aquaculture of photosynthetic microorganisms. These include high susceptibility to invading aquatic consumers and weeds, as well as prodigious requirements for nutrients that may compete with the fertiliser demands of other crops. Most research on algal biofuel technologies approaches these problems from a cellular or genetic perspective, attempting either to engineer or select algal strains with particular traits. However, inherent functional trade-offs may limit the capacity of genetic selection or synthetic biology to simultaneously optimise multiple functional traits for biofuel productivity and resilience. We argue that a community engineering approach that manages microalgal diversity, species composition and environmental conditions may lead to more robust and productive biofuel ecosystems. We review evidence for trade-offs, challenges and opportunities in algal biofuel cultivation with a goal of guiding research towards intensifying bioenergy production using established principles of community and ecosystem ecology.