WITH ALL THE CONFLICTING, self-serving and fragmented advice being offered on the energy crisis, it is hard to find an analysis that is scholarly, readable and independent. This group of essays, from the Harvard Business School Energy Project, goes a long way towards meeting the gap. Although its authors are academics, it is written in a uniformly brisk non-technical style which provides a bridge between experts and the general reader. It faces each aspect of the problem, from coal to solar energy, from roof insulation to air-conditioning, and comes up with specific proposals which no responsible politican or industrialist should ignore.

The authors begin with a lively recapitulation of how the energy crisis secretly crept up on the American public: how in 1948 the fact that the United States had become a net importer of oil was almost unnoticed; how the formation of OPEC in September, 1960 was not reported in The New York Times until two weeks after it had happened; and how in 1970 U.S. production of oil passed its peak, with consequences which no one foresaw. They point out how often oil-price increases have been triggered by political accidents abroad, from Suez in 1956 to Iran in 1979: "Who would have thought that an elderly, irate cleric, living in a suburb of Paris, communicating by cassettes with his followers, could have brought Iranian oil production to a standstill? "

The authors have few doubts about the seriousness of the crisis following the Iranian revolution. They do not put much hope in more oil from Mexico where much of the extra production (they warn) will be consumed by the doubling of the population by the year 2000. They reckon that coal, though it has important long-term potential, cannot be very helpful in the near-term. They think that nuclear power is very uncertain and may even show an absolute decline in the next decade. And they are very skeptical of oil exploration inside the U.S., even with the incentive of higher prices.

The most promising source of new energy, they believe, is solar - which could produce as much as 20 percent of U.S. energy by the end of the century.But they stress that an adaptation to solar heating will require major incentives; and they propose that this be achieved by a combination to market forces - allowing oil to shoot up in price - with a windfall tax on oil profits to subsidize solar installations. They insist that the marketplace must be the means of change, even though it requires government intervention: "Clearly the carrot makes for better politics and more acceptable change than does the stick."

But their main emphasis is on conservation, which they insist should be regarded not in any negative sense but as though it were equivalent to an alternative energy source: "Which is cheaper - a barrel of new production in some distant and hostile terrain, with the risk of a dramatic increase in price, or a barrel saved by insulation? "

They resent the association of conservation with "an antigrowth crusade led by the granola-chomping children of the affluent," and they blame President Carter's language of "sacrifice" for this misleading imagery. They give figures to show that the same standard of living could have been achieved in the U.S. with 40 percent less energy, and they reject the supposed "iron law" of the link between energy consumption and the gross national product. "Many people are going to recognize that the iron link is not ferrous at all, but on the contrary, elastic."

They believe that the auto industry, if it applies itself to this problem instead of to styling, could produce cars providing 50 miles to the gallon; that houses can consume far less energy through efficient retrofit ("the upgrading of a complex system through the insertion of improved components"); and that industry has within its grasp the equivalent of the Alaskan oil strike in the development of "cogeneration," the combined production of electricity and heat. With an effective public policy to create incentives, they reckon that "the United States can use 30 or 40 percent less energy than it does, with virtually no penalty for the way Americans live."

But some readers will have doubts as to whether they have really faced up to the extent of the problem. It is not just that they seem to underestimate the problem of the oil companies who have such a vested interest in the conventional fuel, and that they seem very muted in their criticism of the international "majors" (Exxon, Gulf, Mobil, Socal, Texaco, British Petroleum, and Royal Dutch/Shell) who, they mildly point out, "have a natural tendency to favor their ongoing activities." More important is their reluctance to grapple with the fundamental problems of transportation.

They devote only a single page to "The Auto Way of Life" in which they point out that private automobiles consume half the energy in the transport sector and that one in six workers is involved in the auto industry. But they do not seriously discuss the possible long-term alternatives; they merely state that pooling and mass transit "lack the convenience desired by the American public"; and they insist that "this is a fact of life in American life."

But this assumption, at least to non-American eyes, seems to dodge the real question. It may be a fact of life at the Harvard Business School, but can it continue to be so? A great deal of the current world tension in energy discussions derives from the fact that American gasoline consumption is taking such a large share of world energy reserves.

No doubt to reduce the dependence on the automobile will be a long and painful task, facing the most powerful vested interests. It is even possible, if all the measures recommended by the authors are taken, that it will not be necessary. But to reject this so lightly suggests - at least to this European - that these American experts have still not fully confronted the appalling problem of changing an economy and society based on a cheap fuel which is rapidly running out.