* Nearly 1 mln in N.J., 650,000 in N.Y. still without power
* Attention shifts to labor-intensive outages
* Polling places re-energized in most states
By Cezary Podkul
NEW YORK, Nov 4 (Reuters) - About 1.9 million homes and businesses remained in the dark on Sunday as the pressure mounted on power providers to restore electricity to areas hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy nearly a week ago.
In New York, utilities came under increasing pressure to restore heat and light to some 650,000 customers. More than half of those were served by the Long Island Power Authority, which was singled out for criticism by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
In New Jersey, about a quarter of the state remained without power.
After a peak of 8.5 million outages across 21 states affected by the massive storm, the rate of restoring power each day has eased as line crews must work on increasingly difficult and isolated outages.
After last year’s Tropical Storm Irene, most power was back within five days.
By Sunday afternoon, 640,000 customers had been switched back on in the last 24 hours, down from about 1 million who had power restored a day earlier.
LIPA, which said Sunday it still had 370,000 of its 1.1 million customers without power, has come in for some of the toughest criticism over its efforts, particularly with a new cold front now menacing the region.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s website put the figure closer to 337,000, which was the most of any utility serving the state. Con Edison, which serves about 3.3 million customers in New York state, was second at about 200,000 customer outages.
Speaking at a press conference Sunday morning, Cuomo again criticized LIPA’s restoration efforts and vowed to hold power companies “100 percent” accountable for their performance during restoration efforts.
Earlier this week, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg had joined in the criticism, saying LIPA “has not acted aggressively enough” to restore power to customers. The utility’s customers in the city reside in Queens.
Mark Gross, a spokesperson for Long Island Power Authority, was unavailable for comment.
Nearly a week after Sandy’s landfall, industry experts warned that the overall pace of restoration might slow as utilities move to repair lines and poles, which affect smaller numbers of customers.
“That’s the real labor-intensive stuff that it’s just street-to-street, house-to-house, neighborhood-by-neighborhood,” said Brian L. Wolff, senior vice president of external affairs at Edison Electric Institute, an industry group.
He added that some 150,000 to 200,000 customers “have such a level of physical destruction that they won’t be able to restore electricity for quite some time.”
In New Jersey, where many coastal towns experienced severe devastation, about 25 percent of utility customers were still without power Sunday, according to the Department of Energy. Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG) and Jersey Central Power & Light (JCP&L) - two major providers - each had about half a million customers without power.
PSE&G, which provides power to about 2.2 million customers across a wide swath of central New Jersey, said 493,000 were still without power. But critical infrastructure serviced by the utility had its power restored, a senior executive told reporters on a conference call Sunday.
About 78 percent of gasoline stations had power restored, as well as 80 percent of schools, PSE&G President and Chief Operating Officer Ralph A. LaRossa said.
Seven power substations, including six in Hudson County, were still being restored and the utility was busy coordinating power restoration efforts with local authorities for polling places in time for Election Day.
“We’ll be in pretty good shape by Tuesday,” LaRossa said.
JCP&L, which provides power to 1.1 million customers in 13 New Jersey counties, had 473,000 customers without power as of Sunday afternoon. That’s the vast majority of the 551,000 customers JCP&L’s parent company, energy company FirstEnergy , reported across all its affected service areas.
In service areas outside of New Jersey, which include Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, FirstEnergy expected to have service restored to the majority of polling places ahead of election day, Jennifer Young, a spokesperson for FirstEnergy, said in an email.
In Connecticut, where utility regulators harshly criticized Connecticut Light and Power for its restoration efforts after a freak snow in October 2011, the company was making progress Sunday restoring its remaining customers to power. About 45,000 of Connecticut Light and Power’s 1.24 million customers remained without power as of late Sunday afternoon, according to a spokesperson.
In Pennsylvania, power provider PPL Corporation was also zeroing in on its remaining outages. All polling places and schools in the utility’s 29-county service zone had been restored, spokesperson Michael Wood said. The company had less than 20,000 customer outages as of late Sunday, he said
“Nearly all of those customers will be repaired today,” Wood said.