WHEN it comes to a national energy strategy, the United States is still at the drawing board. With no decision at the top, individual states have struck out on their own. They have passed a raft of energy-conservation laws and regulations.
Among the most innovative programs:
Washington State has upgraded its energy-conserving building codes for new homes - now the strictest nationwide. The new codes take effect next July.
Under a new Iowa law, electric utilities that need to expand must consider cutting demand and other conservation measures before building new plants.
In Connecticut, state-owned vehicles will have to get at least 27 miles per gallon by 1993; 45 m.p.g. by the year 2000.
``It's really absurd for us to set automotive regulations at the state level,'' says Mary Mushinsky, chairwoman of the Connecticut House Environmental Committee. ``But if the feds won't do it, the states have to.''
``In the absence of strong federal leadership and a comprehensive federal energy policy, a lot of states are stepping out on their own,'' says Tom Curtis, director of natural resources for the National Governors' Association.
Larry Morandi, program manager for the environment with the National Conference of State Legislatures, says state policymakers are linking environmental strategy with energy strategy.
``You get a `three-fer' out of it,'' explains Lawrence Alexander, a Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities commissioner. ``You save valuable energy resources. You save consumers a lot of money. You do something very positive for the environment at the same time.''
Energy-saving measures probably won't come cheap. The costs of reducing emissions of ``greenhouse gases,'' for example, could range from virtually nothing to as high 6 percent of the US gross national product, the Governors' Association warned in a recent report.
In some policymaking areas, states have more jurisdiction than the federal government.
A few states have passed measures encouraging utilities to adopt demand-side management. The idea is that a power company that needs to increase its energy supply won't automatically build a new power plant. Instead, it might cut demand.
Iowa, for example, asks its electric utilities to spend up to 2 percent of their operating revenues (1.5 percent in the case of gas companies) on energy-efficiency measures. They might distribute energy-saving blankets for hot-water heaters to consumers or develop plans to retrofit the lighting in commercial buildings.
THE savings on lighting alone can be substantial. Massachusetts would have to spend about $4.5 million to retrofit its 5,000 state-owned buildings with energy-efficient lights, Mr. Alexander says. But the state could save some $7 million in energy costs during that first year alone, he adds.
Under the state utility department's new rules, Massachusetts power companies will have to consider energy-conservation and alternative-energy proposals on equal footing with traditional solutions, such as building a power plant.
If the regulatory department approves the utility's plan, the rate hikes needed to pay for the plan are also OK'd in advance. This measure eliminates the risk utilities face when they build a new plant but can't get higher rates to pay for it.
Starting July 1991, new houses in Washington State will have to be 2-1/2 times more energy efficient than homes built under the state's 1977 code.
To help defray the added construction costs, electric utilities will give builders $900 for every electrically heated house and $300 for every electrically heated apartment they put up. Existing homes will be rated for fuel efficiency so that home buyers can comparison-shop.
In 1993, Connecticut will begin a similar but somewhat weaker program. There, new homes that fail the standards could still be built but could be charged a higher utility rate than fuel-efficient homes.
While the US may eventually catch up with other industrialized nations in energy-efficient buildings, it remains far behind in efficient transportation.
Americans, constituting 1/20th of the world population, own one-third of the world's cars and account for one-half of the world's vehicle miles driven in a year, according to the Conservation Law Foundation of New England.
States are starting to address transportation, too.
The Connecticut law for state-owned cars took effect Oct. 1. In Massachusetts, the state Senate is considering a House-passed bill that would boost the state sales tax on gas-guzzling cars and lower it for fuel-efficient ones.
That plan is similar to California's Drive-Plus measure, which passed the Legislature but was vetoed a few weeks ago by Gov. George Deukmejian.
Here in Pennsylvania, Lt. Gov. Mark Singel had his dark-blue Mercury Grand Marquis converted to run on either gasoline or natural gas - a cleaner, more efficient alternative.
But these moves won't by themselves change the nation's habits, experts admit.
``I don't see any way that we can have a satisfactory energy policy and/or environmental policy if the federal government doesn't take the lead,'' says Stephen L. McDonald at the University of Texas Bureau of Business Research in Austin.
One straight-forward solution would be for the federal government to set higher fuel-efficiency standards for cars and trucks.
Detroit balks at tighter standards because, among other things, it would hurt the US industry much more than its foreign, small-car competitors.
Yet even federal action won't be enough to change the nation's energy patterns, says state Rep. Dick Nelson, chairman of Washington State's House Energy and Utilities Committee.
``I am fairly convinced that without the private sector's participation, we will not solve the transportation problems,'' he says.
That isn't stopping many state officials from trying. Connecticut Representative Mushinsky, for one, is already looking at new ways to encourage more-efficient land use, so that commuters can live close to work and use mass transit instead of their cars.