Developers in China installed a record 12 gigawatts of solar panels last year, almost matching the total amount of solar power in operation in the U.S., and may exceed that this year, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

The power plants were built mostly in the sunny, western provinces of Gansu, Xinjiang and Qinghai and make China’s state-owned power companies the world’s biggest owners of solar assets, the London-based research company said today in a statement.

China was the biggest solar market last year, surpassing longtime leader Germany. Chinese installation more than tripled from 3.6 gigawatts in 2012, and the nation expects to add 14 gigawatts of solar capacity this year, according to New Energy Finance.

“The 2013 figures show the astonishing scale of the Chinese market,” said Jenny Chase, lead solar analyst at New Energy Finance. “PV is becoming ever cheaper and simpler to install, and China’s government has been as surprised as European governments by how quickly it can be deployed in response to incentives.”

Chinese developers rushed to complete projects before the end of the year, when a 1-yuan (17 U.S. cents) a kilowatt-hour incentive expired. That may have led to as many as 2 gigawatts of late-year additions that aren’t included in the 12-gigawatt total.

China led a 28 per cent increase in global solar installations last year of 39 gigawatts, and total installation may increase another 20 per cent this year, according to the statement. Before 2013, no nation had ever installed more than 8 gigawatts of solar power in a year.

Bloomberg