Quebec's energy board has authorized Hydro-Québec to proceed with a controversial plan to install new "smart meters," despite opponents' concerns that the radiofrequencies used by the meters could pose health risks.

In a ruling released Oct. 5, the energy board gave the public utility the go-ahead for phase one of its project — to replace 1.7 million meters on the island of Montreal by 2014, at a cost of $440 million.

Hydro-Québec plans to replace 3.75 million analog meters across the province by 2018, for a total cost of close to a billion dollars.

The new meters, which can provide up-to-the-minute information about electricity consumption and tip the utility to outages, are expected to save Hydro-Québec as much as $200 million over a 20-year period.

Opponents of the plan worry that not enough is known about the radiofrequencies used by the smart meters.  They're also worried about the confidentiality of personal information.

The energy board examined both of those concerns. 

It concluded the intensity of radiofrequencies used by the smart meters is 20,000 to 300,000 times less than the standards set by Health Canada.

As for privacy concerns, the board said Hydro-Québec has taken several security measures aimed at protecting data recorded and transmitted by the new-generation meters.  It added even if a third-party were able to intercept that data, that party could not establish a link between the utility's client and that client's personal data.

 The Quebec Association against Atmospheric Pollution said Friday it's disappointed with the energy board's ruling.

The association had asked that the utility be compelled to move the smart meters to the outside of buildings, to diminish any potential health risk.

Allowing the meters to remain indoors "will expose the occupants to a level of emissions which is higher than what several international organizations recommend," said the group's lawyer, Dominique Neuman.

He said his group and other opponents are hoping the Marois government will intervene and order Hydro-Québec to change some elements of the installation program.