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Energy transfer and exciton population dynamics in a two-quantum dot system coupled with a phonon heat-bath system are examined using the density matrix formalism. In such a system, optical near-field interactions induce energy transfer between quantum dots, and exciton–phonon interactions guarantee the unidirectional excitation energy transfer. Our theoretical investigation shows that the population dynamics change drastically depending on the coupling strengths due to optical near-field interactions and exciton–phonon heat-bath interactions. The temperature effect promotes frequent energy back-transfer from the heat-bath to the quantum dot system. Applying our theoretical formulation, we numerically calculate the time evolution of populations, and estimate energy transfer time or state-filling time for a CuCl quantum dot system. The estimated time is suitable for the elements in our proposed optical nano-switch and nano-photonic devices. © 2003 American Institute of Physics.