MONTREAL - Hearings on Hydro-Quebec's plan to install millions of smart meters across the province began on Monday as some customers cite health concerns about the wireless technology in the meters and oppose the conversion.

The new meters will transmit data wirelessly to the utility using short radio-frequency bursts. With the meters already installed in some Quebec community, customers are claiming that the meters are causing health problems.

"I had migraines, nausea and dizziness," said Marie-Michelle Poisson, a Villeray resident opposed to the meters.

Bowing to pressure, Hydro-Quebec unveiled an alternative plan last Wednesday, allowing customers to opt for manually-read meters. The cost for the customers under the alternative scenario is now being criticized.

"The energy board has not taken into consideration the effect it will have on consumers in terms of health and privacy, in terms of the information that will be collected by those smart meters," said Stephanie Lussier, a lawyer for families fighting the meters.

The utility is offering to install meters that don't emit radio-frequency energy for an initial charge of $98 and a monthly fee of $17 for meter readings. Under the plan, a customer would be charged $302 (before taxes) for the first year.

"The $17 fee is because I need to keep meter readers and send them out to do manual readings," said Georges Abiad, the director of advanced measuring infrastructure for Hydro-Quebec.

"The opt out program can be anywhere in Quebec, which makes proximity a problem and keeping meter readers all over the place will cost more money."

Despite some customers claiming they are being asked to decided between their health and money, Health Canada says the smart meters are safe, claiming that the meters emit far less radiation than a cell phone.

"Low-income people won't be able to pay these fees, so their health and other preoccupations will be ignored," said Olivier Bourgeois, speaking for Option consommateurs.

Hydro-Quebec says the meters will save $300 million over the next 20 years, a savings that will be passed on to customers. The utility will cut 630 meter reader positions.

The public hearings into the meters will last two weeks.