Energy Secretary James Edwards will soon be leaving town. Unlike James Watt, Edwards avoided the public spotlight, and few will notice his return to South Carolina.
But in his 22-month tenure, the former dentist and governor radically changed United States energy policy. Although he failed to achieve his goal of destroying the Department of Energy, he succeeded in slashing conservation programs, alternative energy research, consumer information programs, and energy regulations, while promoting the government's bail-out of the nuclear energy industry.
Because Congress will probably not approve the proposed merger of the Department of Energy and the Department of Commerce, President Reagan must replace Edwards. Although the Washington rumor mill turns on hints of more Bechtel executives and Republican fund raisers, the White House seems undecided. To end that indecision, the President might find the following job qualifications of use:
* Understanding of energy and security issues. Any applicant should recognize the vulnerability of the US and its allies to attacks on centralized power stations and Middle East oilfields. Adm. Thomas Moorer, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, believes officials must take ''seriously one of our society's most troubling vulnerabilities - the extremely fragile nature of the way it acquires, transmits, and uses energy.'' The new appointee must reduce that vulnerability.
* Willingness to promote a balanced energy program. The US can no longer rely on a single technology - be it fossil, nuclear, or solar - to solve our energy problems. The new secretary must be free of the blinders of technical dogma.
* Compassion for the poor. Allowing 1.5 million American families to be without heat and light last winter because they could not afford fuel bills was a national disgrace. While not developing new welfare programs, an energy secretary must devise programs to enhance low-income people's energy self-reliance.
* Ability to communicate. Now that Americans are not standing in gasoline lines, many are ignoring energy issues. During this break in energy price hikes, the Great Communicator's energy leader should inform consumers and businesses of their energy options.
* Local business experience. New York City's reliance on imported fuel oil presents different problems than does Tucson's diversion of precious water for energy projects. Solutions, therefore, will be localized and developed by small businesses and alternative enterprises. Rather than rely on the energy giants, an energy secretary must open the agency to small firms and economic development experiments.
* Management and political experience. Washington is a tough town, and energy is not a hot issue. The new secretary will have to sell the need for a policy as well as the policy itself.