Hydro-Quebec defended its plan Monday to install next-generation smart meters across the province despite health and environmental concerns.

Following an 18-month, 20,000-customer trial in Quebec, including in the Montreal neighbourhood of Villeray, some customers, as well as environmental and health activists, are questioning the safety of the new meters because they emit radio-frequency energy.

Hydro-Quebec referred to a 2011 Health Canada report concluding that exposure to RF energy from smart meters does not pose a public health risk.

"We have a long way to go is to explain to our customer one by one that the technology is safe," said Isabelle Courville, president of Hydro-Quebec distribution.

Courville said the RF emissions measured next to the new wireless device are 100,000 times below recommended limits.

Health Canada compares the signals to those emitted by cell phones and wireless Internet routers.

As many as 100 utilities around the world have apparently already adapted this wireless technology, allowing a technician to read meters remotely.

"You need to go there every time you need to issue an invoice so it's a very non-sophisticated system," explained Courville.

Electricity bills will be based on remote meter readings.

Meters can be remotely disconnected and connected when a customer moves, and instead of sending out teams to gather information about a power outage the utility company will just be able to read the data remotely.

In addition, the old meters are becoming obsolete, and therefore new technology will save the utility money, said Courville.

"Suppliers of those meters have just stopped producing so we have a few years to go - but at some point we'll have to change the meters for the new technology," she said.

Courville said the remote data reading and savings will mean better customer service.

Hydro Quebec said it hopes a full and open debate at the energy board hearings over the next few weeks will settle the public's safety concerns.