The energy shortage is being tackled cautiously in the Washington area by using law books and building codes rather than flashy power projects such as those in other parts of the country.

While New Mexico plans solar energy boosters involving acres of mirrors and towns in Minnesto and Oregon experiment with windmill power, local governments here are trying small pilot projects and tinkering with thermostats. Some officials call it prudent management. Others call it something else:

"I think we're dropping the ball on it," said Charles Colgan, a member of the Virginia legislature's Energy Study Commission. "A lot can be done at the local level, but everybody's waiting for the federal level to come up with a solution.

Nobody minimizes the problems. Everyone agreed in a recent unofficial survey that more insulation in public and private buildings will save millions of dollars on fuel bills, that solar heating may have possibilities and too much gasoline is burned in this area. Officials in each jurisdiction though progress in those area might be easier somewhere else.

"All this stuff about conservation at the government level is a lot of baloney," said John Menke of the Montgomery County Council. "You can encourage conservation but, if you have sprawl development in your area, you burn up the fuel anyway."

In single-family homes spread out over one level, there is more heat loss than in row houses of two or three stories, and residents of such houses now burn more gasoline driving in those areas, Menke noted. "All the costs of sprawl are high. Montgomery County is badly planned from the energy point of view," he said.

Older row housing presents problems for the District of Columbia and Alexandria."So many magabucks are involved" in converting old heating systems and installing insulation, said George Rodericks, director of the District's Office of Emergency Preparedness. "The thing we must watch for is the ripoffs. We need expert guidance and technological assistance to know what's needed."

Installation of solar water or space heaters is tricky, too. "You have to be lucky to do it succesfully," said Fred Agostino of Montgomery County's Environmental Protection department. "The building has to point in the right direction, trees can't be shading it, you can't have a big building next door and so on. It's much easier to put it on a new building."

Echoing several area officials, he added, "Solar energy is just not cost effective right now. I don't think we should get involved just to say we're doing it. We don't want to spend $10,000 just to save $100."

Still, the occasional energy innovations in the area, tend to involve solar units.

Terraset School, which opened last Thursday in Reston, is one of the first solar-powered schools in the country."Your average school is not energy efficient: big rooms, big windows," said Ed Castillo of Fairfax County's public relations office.

"This is a radical design. Most of it is underground. Heating it with matches would be more efficient than heating the average school building," he said.

Public buildings in general are a headache, Castillo said, since "they're up stuck with something that looked every nice and has 50 years of useful life left but a really bad heating system."

Fairfax and Prince William counties are studying the feasibility of solar energy use in new courthouses, while Loudoun County's new Vocational Technical School and Montgomery (County) College's new Germantown campus will heat water with solar energy.

The new St. Bride's correctional center in Virginia will cost $60 for of each of its 9,500 square feet, and $25 of each square foot will go for its solar heating and cooling system, according to Joseph K. Haley Jr., capital outlay assistant and Buildings.

"It's frightening when you think about it," he said, "since it'll be several years before we know whether we're saving any money. But we have to explore these areas."

The cautious approach to solar energy is illustrated in Arlington. A combination recreation center, library and fire station ("if you can imagine such a thing," said County Board Chairman Joseph Wholey) is heated electrically and could be converted with a solar unit later, if that proves to be practical.

No projects for saolar energy use will be planned in D.C. buildings until legal groundwork is laid, according to Rodericks.

"We're looking into sun rights. What if someone builds next to you and blocks your access to the sun?" he said. Such questions are receiving high priority he said, adding that he saw no immediate need for sun rights legislation since technology for large projects is still experimental.

The legal framework, in fact, is the area in which most jurisdictions thought local government could make its greatest impact on the energy question and also raise the most controversy.

"There are things local governments can do themselves," said Alexandria City Manager Douglas Harman. "We're big operations compared to most businesses: we have lots of vehicles and buildings and employees . . . so if we can improve our energy conservation by 5 or 10 per cent that's not inconsequential, but the big multipliers are the masses of citizens and how they use energy.

"The No. 1 problem is whether changes in land use will be allowed for purposes of energy conservation. You get into the basic legal system and the rights of the landowner before the courts regarding zoning changes, building codes and so on, rights that were conferred 20 or 30 years ago," Harman said.

All the jurisdictions report plans to take a new look at building codes with an eye to requiring at the least more insulation, more efficient heating and cooling systems and storm and double-pane windows in new housing.

Again, caution is the watchwood, "an architect doing a good job would use these standards anyway," said Virginia's energy conservation coordinator, Temple Bayliss, in describing proposed changes in the statewide code.

At Sharp, assistant to the Loundoun County administrator, said regional coordinating bodies such ast he Metropolitan Council of Governments or the Virginia Municipal League could create model ordinances for member governments to follow. "If one jurisdictions steps out in front so that it costs more to build there, then that could have an impact on who settles there," he said. With no general agreement, Sharp indicated, the result could be general inaction.

There is a contradiction between authorizing tax breaks for home insulation or other energy improvements and then assessing that home at ta higher rate as a result, several officials admitted. A Prince George's County proposal to offer properly tax credits for solar heat installation bogged down in debate last year about what to count: the unit price the saving the savings or the property value increase.

Some, but not all, local governments have ordered special energy offices, citizen's commissions and conservation officials to work on the issue. Most of them have instigated projects to cut energy use by the government itself. Some of the more novel ones:

Baltimore County's three-year-old Resource Recovery Facility near Towson, Md., produces reusable alumimum, glass and ferrous metals from 700 tons a day of county household trash, along with a burnable substance called "Refuse Derived Fuel." Mike Long of the Maryland Department of Environmental Services said the RDF comes in "at a better than coal per unit of energy given off in burning."

Virginia Electric and Power Co. is planning a new billing experiment that will figure each user's peak power use level. James C. Dunston of the Virginia State Corporation Commission said that the current system charges low users unfairly that "the monthly bill for 60 per cent of the people will actually go down." A hearing on the controversial proposal is scheduled in Richmond Friday.

Montgomery County now requires its departments to report energy use in actual gallons of gasoline, cubic feet of gas or kilowatt hours of electricity rather than in dollars paid. "Before, we lacked a data base to figure out how much we were using, much less whether conservation efforts paid off," said Council President Menke.

Virginia has a new Energy Information Cneter in Richmond that citizens may call or visit to refer to any of its 15,000 documents.