An assessment of decarbonization pathways in energy models reveals fundamental limitations in representing factors that are relevant for practical decision-making. Although these modelling limitations are widely acknowledged, their impact on the deployment of individual power generation types is not well understood. As a result, the societal value from such generation types could be vastly misrepresented. Here we explore a wide spectrum of factors that impact offshore wind deployment in the United States using a detailed capacity expansion model. Many factors prescribe a large future role for offshore wind, yet this diverges from what models often show. We extend the typically narrow modelling context through high spatial resolution, several cost and transmission possibilities and various energy-sector policies. We estimate offshore wind to constitute 1–8% (31–256?gigawatts) of total US generation by 2050. This wide range suggests an uncertain but potentially important regional role. Our expansive scenarios demonstrate how to address many limitations of decarbonization modelling.