THE SECRETARY of energy, James B. Edwards, chides us for having committed a confusion. A couple of weeks ago we published in this space two editorials on energy prices and conservation. They "blatantly contradicted each other," the secretary exclaimed a few days later in a speech to the National Petroleum Council.

Did they? First, we said that energy consumption was down mainly because prices are up. Mr. Edwards agrees with that. So far, so good.

Then we went on to point out that Mr. Edwards and his department have refused to comply with the law in which Congress told them to set minimum acceptable standards of efficiency for appliances such as furnaces, air conditioners and water heaters. "Which is it?" Mr. Edwards asked. "Does price work or not?" Since the record does not show that the Petroleum Council gave him an answer, we shall offer one here. Certainly price works. But it all depends on who pays.

Usually the heater that costs more to buy and install will cost less to run, and vice versa. The more efficient models tend to be the more expensive ones. When a developer builds a subdivision, there's a strong temptation to install inexpensive appliances in order to hold down the prices of the finished houses. The fuel and power bills are not going to be paid by the developer. Here, price works all too well --and in the wrong direction. The market for houses isn't quite like the market for cars. Not many houses are sold on their energy ratings. Perhaps that will change as energy costs keep rising, but it's not common yet. After a house has been sold, the new owner always has the option of ripping out cheap appliances and putting in better ones. But few people, on picking up a mortgage, are likely to find that an attractive idea.

While prices work, in the construction industry they can sometimes work perversely. Building codes already set many rules regarding quality of construction. A country that is concerned about energy consumption has good reason to set a few similar rules about appliances and the minimum standards of efficiency that will be tolerated. There shouldn't be anything confusing about that.