ONE THIRD of the country's energy is used in its buildings, and much of it is now being wasted. Therefore the development of the first set of standards defining minimally acceptable levels of energy efficiency in new buildings is an even of importance.

The new standards are called BEPS -- Building Energy Performance Standards -- and they are, of course, already in trouble. The trouble has several causes. The Department of Energy has been timid in formulating the standards; the building trades and utilities fear that the standards will be bad for business; and Congress, in an unusual display of overenthusiasm for conservation, has defined a set of penalties for noncompliance so harsh that they could never be applied -- thereby leaving compliance totally voluntary.

The purpose of BEPS is to introduce changes in building design and technology faster than market forces alone could bring them. Any large industry has a built-in resistance to change, but economic realities generally change gradually so that industry stays in step. But when -- as with current energy prices -- economic changes are abrupt and very large, industries can fall way behind. Detroit, for example, has watched high-mileage imports nearly double their share of the car market since 1974.

Instead of defining the BEPS so that they will force a faster pace of technological change, DOE has based the standards on technologies that were used in the mid-1970's long before the trend in energy prices had become visible. Rather than taking full advantage standards consider only the kinds of energy-efficient design that were in common use in the past. And in many cases, DOE ignored its own analyses, which showed that additional changes would be economically beneficial not only to the nation as a whole, but to the individual building owner as well.

Builders -- already understandably worried about the impact on their industry of 20 percent interest rates -- oppose any change that adds additional cost, no matter how small, to the purchase price of their products. The officials who have traditionally set building codes at the state and local oppose any action by the federal government, even though putting BEPS into effect will be the job of the states. And finally, utilities -- faced with growth in energy demand far below what they had predicted and with expensive power-plant investments that must be amortized -- fear that energy conservation will cost them more money. Funds are reportedly already being collected for a massive court assault on BEPS, even though it will be many months before the standards are issued.

During the nationawide hearings now being held on BEPS, DOE is hearing almost entirely from the building trades, and it is almost all criticism. DOE needs to hear more support from everybody else and to be encouraged to improve the proposed standards -- at least to the level supported by its own economic analyses. Congress, meanwhile, needs to look again at its sanctions and to define a realistic set that could actually be used.

Change in the old ways of doing things is always uncomfortable -- or worse -- for someone. But in this case, the problems pale beside the benefits to consumers and to the country that will come from new generations of energy-efficient buildings.