SOMEDAY WASHINGTON officials may realize that the rest of the country does not always expect them to lead, that they might do well on occasion to become a band of followers instead.

It is not easy, of course, for members of Cabinets or Congresses to stop planning and posturing to see if others may have an answer or two. But they might find it instructive, particularly as Washington considers its multi-billion-dollar schemes to produce synthetic fuels.

The fact is that a good number of local communities, without waiting for Washington, have begun their own energy projects - inexpensive and hopeful experiments involving steps ranging from altering building codes, encouraging bicycle transportation and nurturing shade trees to burning garbage, recycling used water and promoting locally grown food.

The president has at least mentioned one of these communities - Davis, Calif., a city of 37,000, that is part university town and part bedroom suburb for nearby Sacramento, the state capital.

Threatened by suburban sprawl and swarming traffic a decade ago, the city council moved to limit growth. Before the Arab oil boycott of 1973 residents were troubled by rapidly rising costs of electricity and natural gas. A group of architects, professors and students persuaded the university and city council to support a study of how energy could be properly considered in Davis buildings, many of which are apartments.

The study showed that apartments facing either east or west were especially hot during the summer and required large amounts of electricity for air conditioners. In winter, apartments facing south needed much less energy for heating than did other apartments. The survey concluded that natural heating and cooling is obtained on a north-south axis with maximum glass exposure on the south.

The city council then approved an ordinance embodying performance standards aimed at achieving conservation. The code regulates window area in relation to floor area. If more glass is desired, architects must arrange it on parts of the building facing south or else employ thermal glass; the amount of unshaded glass is strictly limited.

The code stipulates that light colors (to better withstand the sun) must be used on roofs, and it includes upgraded requirements for insulation.

City officials now put scale models of proposed buildings under a solar simulator. This is a gadget with light bulbs canted at different angles to represent the rays of the sun on different days of the year.

The elderly on tricycles

Since the code took effect in 1977, Davis has expanded its efforts to conserve energy. There are 28,000 bicycles in town, and Davis has built a complex of special paths and set aside lanes on public roads to encourage their use. When the university is in session the place crawls with bikes: students, mothers and kids, men heading for office jobs and elderly persons piloting big three-wheel trikes. It's been estimated that a quarter of all trips in the city are by bicycle.

The city takes pains to make sure it is safe to bike. School kids are taught bike safety, there is a tight licensing system, and bike cops are on patrol. To supplement bikes, a fleet of london double-decked buses, operated by the university students' association, functions as a quick jitney service. The city itself is replacing big cars and trucks with compact or subcompact models.

Davis wants to narrow, not widen, its streets and takes care to ensure they are well shaded. Research has demonstrated that neighborhoods with narrow, shaded streets are 10 degrees cooler in summer than nieghborhoods with wide, unshaded streets; a citizens' committee now watches over the trees.

The Davis campus of the University of California has been at the center of research and development for modern, mass agricultural methods, including the most up-to-date pesticide schemes. So it was a stunning reversal of big agriculture two years ago when the city hired a biological control expert, stopped spraying the trees with pesticides and doused them with water instead.

Davis is also trying to persuade owners off 700-odd swimming pools to heat them with solar collectors, not natural gas, and it is attempting to further reduce transportation in and out of town with a work-at-home ordinance that encourages cottage industries around town. In addition, the city council now has before it a proposed ordinance on retrofitting existing homes; it would require the owners of these structures, mostly energy-inefficient, to bring them up to certain conservation levels before sale.

The experiments at Davis have begun to save energy - anywhere from 10 to 18 percent in electricity since 1973, depending on who does the estimating.

But it's just a beginning. One of the early lessons from the Davis experiment has been that communities can do just so much on their own, that regional plans are needed for deeper reductions in energy use. Thus there is a move afoot to extend the Davis ideas into surrounding Yolo County. Already Davis has contracted for a regular bus service into Sacramento to help reduce auto transportation for workers, and trains have begun to run again from Davis to Oakland, allowing professors, students and other employees who ordinarily drive from the Bay area to commute by rail.

Windmills in New Mexico

Unlike Davis, Seattle is a much larger and older city. In energy terms, it long has been favored by cheap and abundant supplies from dams in the High Cascades. And with the third largest municipally owned electric system in the country, the city has a proud history of public power.

With hydroelectric power sources declining, the electric system in recent years has turned to nuclear power. But four years ago environmentalists persuaded the city to hold off on plans for more nuclear power until an independent citizens' committee determined whether it was really necessary. The resulting analysis, as detailed and sophisticated as anything emerging from either Congress or the Carter administration, argued convincingly that energy conservation had a good chance of providing the same amount of energy as the proposed nuclear project.The city council set aside the nuclear option and plunged into conservation.

Seattle's goal is to save 230 megawatts, or 18 percent of total electrical usage, by 1990. About 85 megawatts, or 8 percent, can be saved by new building codes for commercial buildings; a key feature of the code makes it possible to turn on and off lights by requiring local, rather than central, switches.

The city also wants to make more coherent use of downtown land, to mix living and working space in a denser pattern, and to reduce energy consumed in commuting. As a beginning in this direction, Seattle offers free downtown bus service. It also has begun to investigate alternative energy schemes, such as planting fast-growing trees on power line rights-of-way, then burning the trees along with garbage and coal to make electricity. There are plans to experiment with combinations of solar systems - wind and sun - as supplements to hydropower.

There are other intriguing experiments on the local level: Ames, Iowa, has a plant that burns garbage to create electricity. Burlington, Vt., has a commercial electric generating plant that burns waste wood. Portland, Ore., is debating a tough energy conservation law that would require insulation in private homes and commercial buildings. Clayton, N.M., obtains substantial amounts of electricity from a big windmill.

Energy policy often depends on geography and can mean different things in different parts of the nation. For example, a water reuse policy in Northglenn, Colo., promises to save energy by using waste-water to fertilize farmland and preserve open space.

Northglenn is a suburb of Denver, and as elsewhere along the eastern slope of the Rockies, water is scarce. Its use is a bone of contention between urban developers and farmers. Instead of fighting the farmers, Northglenn made a deal with them. The city borrows water from farmers, captures it after use and returns it to the land for various purposes, including fertilizer.

The long-term potential for energy savings in this sort of program are immense. The Northglenn plan means cutting down on energy-intensive chemical sewage treatment. It helps hold agricultural land in production, which in effect works as a curb on urban growth. And using wastewater as fertilizer can dramatically reduce the need for chemical fertilizers, which are highly energy-intensive.

Far away from Northglenn, Hartford, Conn., an old industrial city, believes its best bet for cutting energy use and reducing costs lies in a food program. That may sound odd, but food production involves heavy use of energy: in actual production, for making fertilizers and for pesticide production, processing, and transcontinental truckage. By the time food grown in California or the Middle West gets to Hartford it is expensive.

Hartford has begun to institute a food system aimed at creating farms on the periphery of the city center. It wants to encourage nearby small farmers to cultivate crops that went out in the middle of the 19th century as the railroads and agriculture moved west. At the same time, the city wants to employ out-of-work youth tilling the farms, to establish a marketing system that channels the food to poor neighborhoods through farmers' markets, and eventually to ensure that the food makes its way to institutional markets such as city hospitals, homes for the elderly and schools.

All of these energy-saving efforts across the country are in their beginning stages, and it is easy to put them down. In fact, neither the administration nor the Congress has paid much serious attention to them. But changing the energy base of the United States will be a long, slow process at best, and it may well turn out that the seeds of a constructive national program are to be found in these local experiments, not in a massive synthetic fuels drive. CAPTION: Picture 1, In Seattle, reflecting glass walls cut a building's cooling costs.; Picture 2, The living room of a house in Davis, Calif., shows the "tube wall" covering the front window. The tubes contain water used for heating and cooling the house. By James D. Wilson - Newsweek